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The Sky is No Longer the Limit in the Commercial Space Race

Falcon 9

The aerospace industry has been making national headlines lately and for enthusiasts and science fiction fans alike, we are blowing the doors off the golden age of the 1920s and 30s.  We owe a great debt to the early pioneers of aviation but after a hundred years of technological advancement, our own billionaire pioneers are now taking stage, driving civilization to a new frontier and a new golden age.  The sky is getting a little more crowded but it is no longer the limit. Get ready. 

Among the headlines: SpaceX makes historic landing of Falcon 9 rocket, Blue Origin successfully lands reusable rocket, Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft passes critical NASA milestone, FAA Drone registration rules set, etc. etc ad infinitum et ultra.

By now, everyone not living under a rock has seen the videos of the SpaceX and Blue Origin rocket landings, the failed landings, subsequent explosions and the Twitter battles that followed between the two CEOs, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos respectively, arguing about who has the bigger rocket.  Egos aside, the commercial space race is well underway. 


In 2004, Burt Rutan won the Ansari X Prize with SpaceShipOne, the first private manned spaceflight in history.  The achievement proved sending a man to space was not only possible but could be done quickly and affordably by private individuals without the traditional expensive one-off bureaucratic model.  The full-time development cycle for the project was only 3 years. 

Though SpaceShipOne only achieved sub-orbital flight, it served as an inspirational beacon that has guided a new generation to embrace the final frontier.  Within 5 years of the X Prize competition, SpaceX delivered its first commercial payload into orbit on Falcon 1 in 2009 during its fifth launch.  The orbital delivery required 60 times more energy than its suborbital predecessors.  SpaceX went on to become the first privately funded company to: launch a liquid-fueled rocket into orbit, recover a spacecraft from orbit, send a spacecraft to the International Space Station and the first private company to send a satellite into geosynchronous orbit.  On December 22nd, 2015, SpaceX also became the first to land a first stage orbital capable rocket after successfully deploying 11 communication satellites for Orbcomm.  The landing was significant because it means the new rockets can be reused which will lower the cost of launching by a hundred fold.


SpaceX has its eyes set on colonization.  In the next 10-20 years, it hopes to launch the Mars Colonial Transporter designed to transport humans to Mars. Musk stated in a 2011 interview that he envisions a colony on the red planet of tens of thousands of people with the first settlers arriving in the mid-2020s.

In 2012, a nonprofit organization based in the Netherlands called Mars One, purposed establishing a permanent human colony on Mars by 2027.  They have even explored a reality television program as a means of providing some of the funding.  With the incredible popularity of space travel and science fiction, it may indeed be time to capitalize on a new genre in reality television. 

Orion MPCVSpaceX isn’t the only one with their eyes on Mars.  In 2006, Lockheed Martin won a NASA contract for the first human interplanetary spacecraft, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).  The craft may look a little like the old Apollo spacecraft but the technology is state-of-the-art.  “Utilizing advancements in computing, design, architecture, and safety… It’s systems are so evolved that even if every astronaut leaves the craft as part of the mission, Orion will continue to function.”  Lockheed Martin’s website states that Orion is being designed for missions no one has even dreamed of yet.

What makes feats like that of SpaceX and the ambitious projects of Lockheed Martin and Mars One even possible is the rapid acceleration of robotics, composite materials and advanced manufacturing.  When NASA developed something for their missions in the past, the “spin-off” technology impacted everything from medicine to aviation but the industry is changing quickly.

According to Txchnologist, A GE Blog, “Musk is setting out to do for the space launch industry what Henry Ford did for the auto industry a century ago.”  Musk has brought the manufacturing and design of rocket engines, boosters and spacecraft under a single roof.  He has changed the industry from a custom one-off operation to one of mass production, lowering the overall cost of space launch.  He is setting a new standard in manufacturing by utilizing high-fidelity computer-aided design models (CAD), motion capture technology, 3-D imaging and 3-D printing technology for industrial manufacturing. The designs SpaceX creates are sent directly from the engineer to their laser metal 3-D printers.

Other sectors of the aerospace industry are taking note and making strides towards advancing their own manufacturing capabilities. In a recent article from the National Defense Magazine, Kevin Mickey, VP of advanced design at Northrop Grumman, stated he has been hearing about a “paradigm shift” in the military aircraft business towards “rapid prototyping.”  This would give buyers a chance to experiment with new technology and systems before committing to large investments.

KUKA RoboticsThe president of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, Tom Vice said, “We have to think differently. How are we going to bring economies of advanced manufacturing and know-how so we can build fewer things, or many things, and still do it efficiently?”  Northrop has been lowering the cost of their production through an integrated assembly line and their use industrial robots from KUKA Robotics.  Their next big push towards future military contracts is what they call the “factory of the future,” which has been in development for the last six years. They want to create an integrated digital enterprise.  “You can take something that’s brand new from a 3D model and actually forecast how it would go through a factory like this, how you would build it.” Vice stated.

According to Vice, their aim is to catch the next big wave of advancement by “migrating from the idea of unmanned to autonomous” to create the next-generation of robotics that are independent thinking machines.  Drones today, “constrain our ability to think about innovative new designs. If we think about never having a pilot, it allows us to design things that human beings would never allow.”  The article from National Defense Magazine stated such advancements would include airplanes with the ability to travel beyond 9 g’s, takeoff and land vertically, and perform tasks human operators are unable to do.  

As enthusiasm builds, technology improves and the cost of production goes down, arm-chair aviators without billions to spend are getting in on the action.  FAA official Rich Swayze told Air Transport World Online that as many as one million drones could be sold during the 2015 Holiday season alone.  With the cheapest one on Wal-Mart’s website going for just under $20, now anyone can conquer their own corner of the sky, once they register of course.

Fears over the recent surge in drone sales have pushed the FAA to roll out a drone registration program that requires all private Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to be registered.  As of January 6th, Fortune Magazine reported that 181,000 had already been registered.  Be warned.  Failure to register a drone could result in up to three years in jail or a $250,000 fine.

For the diehard science fiction fan, I’d like to recommend this awesome Millennium Falcon Quad drone from Air Hogs.  I heard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was actually named after Han Solos famous Falcon.  If you order it from Amazon Prime, Jeff Bezos might just send his own drone to deliver it.  

Happy flying.



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Our home office is centrally located just outside Dallas. Over the years we have built a nationwide presence by completing many projects throughout the U.S. We specialize in automation, equipment & conveyor installations, rigging, mezzanine & structural steel fabrication and erection, machine moving & rigging, plant equipment decommissioning, and plant maintenance. Our projects range from half-day preventative maintenance procedures to turnkey assembly/production line installations.

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