A New Challenger for Elon Musk? Another Company Plans to Settle Humans on Mars
Long ago, the writer Edward Albee wrote: "Good, better, best, bested."
On a long enough timeline, this might reflect the experience of every major space firm.
Since the federal government ruled in favor of NASA's decision to opt for SpaceX's bid to design and deploy a Human Landing System (HLS) to the moon, it's seemed like Elon Musk and his firm will have the lion's share of public-private collaborations for lunar missions, and beyond. But in the coming decade, contestants for this role are lining up.
Beyond Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, which lost a lawsuit against NASA regarding Musk's contract with the agency, there are other aerospace firms with their eyes on the prize. And one of them, called Sierra Space, just took a major leap toward a rivaling position in Space Race 2.0, raising $1.4 billion to, among other things, modify its Dream Catcher space vehicle for human crews, with aims to land on Mars, and "enable humanity to build and sustain thriving civilizations beyond Earth," said Sierra Space CEO Tom Vice, in a press release from his company.
Sierra Space is developing its Dream Chaser for a human crew
Sierra Space's new $1.4 billion was raised in a Series A round of financing, under the leadership of Moore Strategic Ventures and Coatue, General Atlantic, and the aerospace firm will leverage its new funds to accelerate the development of its reusable "Dream Chaser" orbital spaceplane, according to the release. The Dream Chaser comes in three modes: one for cargo and crew space requirements, and another for national security purposes. All three variants are have entered an advanced development phase thanks to a NASA contract to provide cargo resupply trips to the International Space Station, beginning in the latter half of 2022. The investment will also enable the firm to further accelerate the development of the Large Integrated Flexible Environment Habitat (LIFE Habitat). Both this and the Dream Chaser will be crucial parts of a new forthcoming commercial space station, called Orbital Reef.
Orbital Reef is a collaborative project between Sierra Space and Blue Origin. "We are building the next generation of space transportation systems and in-space infrastructures and destinations that will enable humanity to build and sustain thriving civilizations beyond Earth," said CEO Vice in the press release. "Space provides a unique environment that will enable new breakthroughs in critical areas such as pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, fiber optics and energy that will directly enhance our life on Earth."
SpaceX's Starship to attempt orbital flight in January 2022
Partnered with Blue Origin, Orbital Reef could serve as a center of competition for Elon Musk's SpaceX by drawing in enough orbital traffic to become a major hub of business in space. But while projects from Sierra Space, Blue Origin, and many other private aerospace firms could one day become comparable to SpaceX on a fiscal level, it's doubtful that Musk needs to worry about it very much.
Since its victory in the lawsuit from Blue Origin, NASA has resumed talks with SpaceX, and Musk's firm has already announced that its flagship launch vehicle, the Starship prototype, will resume tests in December. And, even more exciting, SpaceX plans to attempt Starship's first-ever orbital flight in January, according to an initial report from Business Insider. Starship is comprised of two stages; the booster (Super Heavy) and the space-worthy vessel itself (Starship). Both employ Raptor engines, although the Super Heavy will have 33, while the spacecraft only six. The key breakthrough is, of course, the reusability of both stages of Musk's rocket. And the launch system is expected to lift humans not only back to the moon (recently delayed until 2025), but to Mars, and beyond. But before the end of the decade, Sierra Space, Blue Origin, and a handful of other private aerospace firms might roar from the rearview mirror of Musk's Starship: "We're right behind you."