HOUSTON — Privately owned orbital facilities and regular space tourism could be a reality by the end of the next decade, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation said Wednesday.
Speaking to students at Rice University, Michael Lopez-Alegria compared the current state of the private space industry to the early days of commercial air flight.
The growing success of the industry will lead to the “democratization of access to space” and create thousands of jobs, he said.
The former astronaut and International Space Station commander, who holds NASA records for the longest spaceflight and cumulative spacewalking time, pointed toward the space agency’s commercial cargo program, which has seen recent successes with orbital cargo deliveries conducted by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp.
The Commercial Spaceflight Federation represents about 50 commercial space organizations, including SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and the Boeing Company, which are developing crafts to transport NASA astronauts to the space station.
“[NASA] can leverage the idea of competition, entrepreneurship, et cetera,” to benefit space exploration, he said.
About 535 people have traveled to space. That number is likely to skyrocket in the future – about 1,000 people have already signed up for future flights on Virgin Galactic and EXCOR Aerospace for suborbital flights
Virgin Galactic developed the SpaceShip-Two craft intended to take tourists on suborbital flights, Lopez-Alegria said.
The prospect of near space tourism is also close to becoming a reality. In 2016, the Tucson, Ariz.-based World View Enterprises plans to take tourists on a balloon ride more than 18 miles above the Earth.
The company plans to charge about $75,000 a ticket, but that’s to be expected at first.
“When you think about what people were paying in the 1930s for commercial air flight, it’s not incomparable,” Lopez-Alegria said.
The commercial space industry’s role won’t be limited to space tourism or government contracts, he said.
Bigelow Aerospace is developing its own space station, which it hopes to launch in coming years. Executives at other companies have expressed a willingness to move beyond NASA contracts and service other “sovereign clients.”
Eight spaceports already exist in the U.S., with many more, including one at nearby Ellington Field, being proposed.
Economic growth created by the relatively new industry will be invaluable, he said.
Lopez-Alegria sees the commercial space industry providing a complementary role with NASA and international space agencies. As NASA focuses on deep space exploration and other goals, the role of private industry in space will become more prominent.
“The government’s role is to be the point at the end of the spear – at the very end of the spear – with private industry filling in behind.”