Patrick Healy, Scott Meadows
Andrew Nelson with XCOR Aerospace says commercial space travel is very much within the realm of possibility. "We're going to take up people, space tourists," Nelson says. Commercial companies displayed their latest and greatest spaceflight technology at their first expo at LA’s convention center. Patrick Healy reports for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on May 10, 2012.
Don't look now, but commercial space travel has morphed from pipe dream to growth industry.
"We're going to take up people, space tourists," said Andrew Nelson, chief operating officer of XCOR Aerospace. "Science missions, upper atmosphere research, even carrying experiments for kids from classrooms."
A mockup of XCOR’s Lynx reusable rocket ship was displayed this week at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Flight testing the Lynx is expected to begin by next January, and the first commercial flight could take off within 18 months.
Rival Virgin Galactic is already accepting reservations for its planned suborbital space flights.
"None of us feel we're in a race," Nelson said. "It's really about safety first. We want to get to space, but we want to do it safely.
XCOR was one of the exhibitors at the first-ever Spacecraft Technology Expo. Other major participants included Boeing and SpaceX. The three-day run wrapped up Thursday afternoon.
It's a reflection of the maturing of the commercial spacecraft industry that it is now ripe for such an expo, said Steve Bryan, project director for Smarter Shows, the UK-based organizer of the event.
"You can see, SpaceX, for example. This is real, " Bryan said as he gestured toward a space capsule on display. "These guys are about to do something that is absolutely historic. They're going to take the Dragon capsule and link it up to the International Space Station."
The unmanned craft is to be launched atop SpaceX's own rocket. It is designed ultimately to carry as many as seven astronauts, and is one of the potential contenders, in effect, to succeed the Space Shuttle.
If you'll be taking a commercial flight into space, you will need more than a rocket ship. You also have to have the proper accessories.
Astronauts have long worn space suits by the David Clark Company, which specializes in the demands of extreme g-loads and high altitude. Soon there will be a suit and matching helmet in your size.
"We're actually using our suits, and we're trying to tailor them toward these vehicles so just about anybody can fly into space," said Shawn MacLeod, director of field operations for the Clark Company.
The growth of the commercial spacecraft industry does not imply that government-run NASA is going away. In fact, space scientists on Thursday were reveling in all the data gleaned by NASA's Dawn mission on its first stop in the asteroid belt beyond Mars.
Dawn confirmed that the large asteroid Vesta has the structure of a proto-planet not unlike an early stage forerunner of our own planet, and thus is a source of insight into Earth's development.
Using ion propulsion, Dawn will next move on to the largest asteroid, the dwarf planet Ceres.
If that's not enough to keep NASA project managers busy at the storied Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the border of Pasadena and La Canada Flintridge, their Mars Science Laboratory will be landing on the red planet in August.
Vesta is a little far away for space tourism or mining, but closer in, XCOR's Nelson predicts a wealth of applications awaits space technology.
"The applications layer...on top of space access is going to be broad, wide and deep," Nelson said.