This weekend was the anniversary of the world’s first-and still only—privately funded manned space mission. On April 4th, 2000 the Dutch MirCorp mission blasted off from Baikonur. Officially known as Soyuz TM-30, the crew consisted of Commander Sergei Zalyotin and Alexandr Kaleri, whose mission was to fix up the troubled Mir space station and prepare the 15 year old station for future commercial missions.
As the CEO of MirCorp, I remember that day and the launch vividly. The butterflies that precedes any manned launch, the pressing questions of financing, a sudden spike in solar flare activity that was dragging to earth the space station (as well as the new NASA station) causing us to send, earlier than expected, another Progress ship loaded with fuel. There was the pressure from NASA to end our activities but above all else there was the pride felt by everyone that a new era in space exploration had arrived. A private company, with private financing, was operating a manned space station.
Nine years later the MirCorp mission remains the only commercial manned mission and our lease of the space station the only such occurrence. How much longer will we have to wait to see a private company sponsor another manned mission? If media accounts are any indication, the end of the current space tourist regime with the Russians may well be a positive development. It's very cool that Charles Simonyi has now twice paid for a trip to outer space. But it's time to evolve to a more commercial market situation. Moving forward, companies such as Space Adventures will be forced to procure their own vehicle, sending two tourists with a professional pilot. From that development may well come commercial modifications to the production line, and the spacecraft itself. And more creative commercial space missions. All good developments.
And we wait to hear the next news from Bigelow Aerospace regarding their manned space station plans. So too with Elon Musk, who seems to be morphing already from an unmanned cargo carrier to an orbital platform developer.
If these developments take place in the next several years, then twelve or fifteen years is not a long time to have waited for the industry to duplicate and surpass the pioneering steps taken by MirCorp and the Russian company RSC Energia. Indeed, when compared to the first decade of the space shuttle program, progress like this would be moving at lightning speed and augur well for a market that will see the ascendancy of the commercial sector in routine manned space operations.
But that time has yet to come and what we did way back on April 4th, 2000 stands still as the pinnacle of the commercialization of manned low-earth operations.