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Companies and governments are developing unconventional, more economical, and environmentally friendlier means to transport humans and cargo to space. SpaceX’s Dragon Capsules 1 and 2 successfully supported transport of people and goods for dozens of launches to the ISS. The Dragon XL spacecraft, now in development, will support up to 5,000 kilograms of cargo and service NASA’s Lunar Gateway on the moon. Orlando-based Space Perspectives’ Neptune One capsule is more sustainable and, compared to a rocket thruster’s brute force, offers a gentler ride. As early as 2024, the giant hydrogen balloon will, while not technically transporting humans to “space,” take them high enough to see the Earth’s curvature. SpinLaunch of Long Beach, California is building an orbital accelerator that kinetically launches satellites and uses a vacuum-sealed centrifuge to sprint and hurl rockets into space. Its engines do not ignite until around 200,000 feet, thus reducing the power required to reach orbit. Space tugs, including those developed by Spaceflight, Momentous, and Exolaunch, attach to a satellite on Earth pre-launch, and, once in space, drag it to its planned orbit. Others, like Northrop Grumman’s and Astroscale’s, dock with satellites already in orbit, guiding their charges to change paths or safely deorbit. Space tugs make some orbits that have been out of reach due to propulsion capability constraints accessible. Startup Orbit Fab is working to build a gas station in space that delivers hydrazine propellant fuel to satellites. The US Space Force, one of its first customers, hopes that economical orbital refueling will enable longer use of existing satellites. Until recently, the space-transport industry was largely a monopsony, serving a single customer: the ISS. It’s still the primary destination for cargo and people, but this will change as plans develop for a return to the moon, the construction of China’s Tiangong Space Station and other private stations, and proposals to build tourist infrastructure like space hotels. The transport industry will subsequently broaden in terms of its customer base and requirements it must fulfill.

Easier transportation to space

KEY TRENDS

The new Space Race