SpaceX Launched Falcon 1 a Decade Ago Today: Is Private Space Travel Still Viable?

Friday marks 10 years since SpaceX launched its Falcon 1 rocket into orbit around Earth. A huge milestone for commercial space travel, it was the first time a privately developed liquid-fuel rocket had reached such a target.

A decade on, we have seen awe-inspiring success and devastating failure from the world of private space exploration. As NASA pushes ahead with its commercial crew program, critics continue to question the viability of private space travel, whether it's suborbital space flights—as Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origins are currently planning—or missions that take humans way beyond the Kármán line, as Elon Musk's SpaceX wants to deliver.

Although companies like SpaceX and Boeing are working closely with NASA on this program, no private rockets have delivered humans into space yet. "Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are well behind schedule, and Blue Origin has not yet said when it will begin to offer flights," John Logsdon, founder and former director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, told Newsweek.

When companies finally begin to offer flights, he added, they'll need to have had far more successes than problems, and no fatal accidents at all.

Virgin Galactic saw tragedy in 2014, when copilot Michael Alsbury perished as the VSS Enterprise broke apart midair. The company is pushing ahead with its goal of sending humans on suborbital space flights, but it has seen lengthy delays.

Safety concerns have dogged private companies for years. NASA's commercial crew program, for example, is set to see SpaceX and Boeing transport humans into space. NASA has stringent safety standards, Logsdon said, and until the companies prove they can meet them, there is reason for concern.

"There is also a rather negative feeling among some members of the U.S. Congress, regarding in particular Elon Musk's recent behaviors, that adds to concerns," he continued. Musk recently backtracked on a tweet that said he was thinking of taking car company Tesla private. On Tuesday, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a lawsuit accusing Musk of securities fraud. The entrepreneur is also facing legal action after calling one of the divers involved in the Thai cave rescue a "pedo guy on Twitter."

But apart from Musk's behavior, "NASA is working with the commercial crew companies to help them succeed," said Logsdon. "I believe they will achieve that success in partnership with NASA."

Private companies can bring a lot to the space travel table, such as "innovative ideas, good engineers, access to adequate financial resources—and for nongovernment passengers—relatively few restrictive regulations," he said. But of course they're all betting on one crucial unknown: customers.

"It is not certain that there is really a market, at least at the current prices," said Logsdon, adding that the first operations will test the market. But Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures, a company that arranges spaceflights for private customers, thinks there's definitely a demand for this kind of travel. "There are more people interested in launching into space than seats available," he told Newsweek. "Once commercial vehicle providers are launching and able to reserve seats for private individuals, we'll be able to contract flights. If not, there will continue to be a disconnect [between supply and demand]."

Private companies, Shelley said, have been involved in spaceflight since Project Mercury sent the first American astronauts into space. "What has shifted is the way in which private companies are engaged," he said. "The next 10 years will see an increase of not only space tourism, but the growth of a new marketplace for industries like satellite deployment and servicing, and research."

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Logsdon is certain, at the very least, that 10 years from now, agencies like NASA will have sent astronauts back to the Moon, "either in orbit around it or back to the surface."

But he is less confident in the future of private space travel. A decade from now, "either the space tourism companies will have succeeded in creating a modest business." he said, "or they will be out of business."