Orbit Closer For Space Entrepreneurs


The success of the X Prize competition has spawned a new wave of efforts to launch private spaceships and build spaceports — so many that the field is starting to sort out into various subgroups. Most active are the companies we told you about on Monday, who are trying to launch manned ships into space and back, mainly for tourism. But gaining fast are the next tier of contenders, who have their eyes on the prize of getting into orbit, and staying as long as they like. Last week, in McGregor, Texas, SpaceX took a leap forward when it successfully tested its Merlin rocket engine, which produces 73,000 pounds of thrust, Wired News reported. The engine burned for 162 seconds — long enough to boost a 1,500-pound payload into orbit. “This essentially marks the completion of our engine development,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told Wired News. The Merlin engine will power the first stage of the company’s Falcon I rocket, which is expected to launch in March, carrying a Department of Defense satellite and the cremated ashes of 125 people who paid to be “buried” in space. The next-phase Falcon V rocket will use six of the Merlin engines, in an effort to win the $50 million America’s Space Prize. To win, SpaceX must send five people into orbit twice within 60 days, and do it by Jan. 10, 2010. And then what? “I think it’s very important that we become a spacefaring civilization, and that we eventually become multiplanetary,” Musk said — so watch for that competition next.