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A small fleet of privately developed spacecraft will head into orbit in the next few years–assuming that current levels of public and private funding can be sustained. If it happens, this will mark a new chapter in space exploration and research, as NASA comes to rely more on private companies for the technology to put manned and unmanned vehicles in space.

Progress reports from several private space companies at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’s Space 2010 conference, in Anaheim, CA, reveal new details of spacecraft design as well as testing and flight schedules.

To develop their new spacecraft, these companies have received financial assistance from NASA for reaching various milestones under the so-called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and Commercial Crew Development programs, which are oriented toward getting commercial providers to deliver cargo, and eventually crews, to the International Space Station. But since supplying the ISS is a somewhat limited market, and subject to the funding whims of Congress, the manufacturers hope to bring in additional revenue by opening up new markets for their vehicles.

Furthest along in developing a viable spacecraft is SpaceX, headquartered in Hawthorne, CA, and founded by Internet millionaire and energy entrepreneur Elon Musk. SpaceX is developing a reusable spacecraft, called Dragon, and a launch vehicle, the Falcon 9. The Falcon 9 had a successful test flight in June. It went into orbit at 250 kilometers. The Dragon spacecraft, which resembles an Apollo capsule, successfully completed a high-altitude drop test using its reentry parachutes three weeks ago.

Orbital tests of the spacecraft are expected to begin later this year, prior to its first resupply mission to the ISS in 2011. Although the Dragon will initially just transport cargo, it is being designed with human passengers in mind, and should require minimal modifications before it can ferry crews to and from orbit. Beyond missions to the ISS, SpaceX plans to fly refurbished Dragon spacecraft under its DragonLab program, offering scientific or engineering researchers pressurized and unpressurized environments for experiments they want conducted in zero gravity or in the vacuum of space.

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Credit: SpaceX

Tagged: Business, NASA, space, satellite, launch vehicle, human space exploration, human spaceflight

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