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Commercial spaceflight reaches turning point as tourism grows closer

The burgeoning field of commercial spaceflight is at a major turning point, industry experts say.

The burgeoning field of commercial spaceflight is at a major turning point, industry experts say.

"It's not an exaggeration to say that 2012 has really been an inflection point," the former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria said in October at the eighth annual International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, according to the website SPACE.com.

Mr Lopez-Alegria, who serves as the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said there was "a sea change going on" both in terms of achievements within the industry and the perception of this industry to the outside world.

He highlighted major milestones from the past year, including the first launch of a private spacecraft to the International Space Station the SpaceX Dragon mission in May and the continued development work on private spacecraft by companies such as Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin.

Likewise, in the realm of suborbital spaceflight flights that don't make a complete circle around Earth but reach space for a few minutes a handful of companies such as Virgin Galactic, Xcor, Masten Aerospace and Armadillo Aerospace continue to test their vehicles in preparation for offering space tourist flights in the coming years.

"I can't help thinking we're in the midst of something big," Lori Garver, the deputy chief of Nasa, says of the growing commercial space industry. "These are incredibly exciting times and I am so, so pleased and proud that Nasa can play a small role."

Nasa has sponsored competitions for commercial vehicles to carry both cargo and crew to the International Space Station, which currently relies on Russian spacecraft for transportation following the space shuttle's retirement. The SpaceX cargo launch was the first of 12 scheduled delivery missions for the firm, and other companies like Orbital Sciences plan to begin cargo flights soon.

These competitions have not been instituted without resistance by some in Congress, who question the safety and reliability of commercial spacecraft, and have pushed for less funding for private spaceflight.

"Amid the mistrust and subpoenas, it's hard to remember sometimes how much progress we've made," Ms Garver said.

Many commercial space companies still face an uphill climb, both in developing complex technology and in growing a market beyond Nasa for their services.

"This industry loves hard stuff," said Roger Krone, the president of Network and Space Systems at Boeing.

"We just thrive on challenge. If we wanted to do something easy or simple we wouldn't be in this business. We all want to be part of something that's new and exciting."

Clara Moskowitz is the assistant managing editor of Space.com


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