Spacecraft undergoing testing at Sierra Nevada CorporationIf space flight is ever to become affordable enough to be a mainstream business, two things have to happen. Actually getting to space has to be come an order or two of magnitude cheaper, and satellites and spaceships have to get a whole lot cheaper.

SpaceX is working hard on the first task, as evidenced by its second so-called Grasshopper flight over the weekend. The company is attempting to turn its currently-disposable F9 rockets into reusable F9 Grasshoppers. A reconfigured F9 is hopping just a few feet at a time right now, but the plan is to have the thing flying itself back to base after delivering its cargo to orbit. The rocket will land on its tail, as Jerry Pournelle puts it “just as God and Robert Heinlein intended rockets to do.”

The other piece of the affordable spaceflight puzzle is also being solved. There’s an emerging class of satellites, in particular, that holds a lot of promise. I’m not talking about Cubsats, those research nanosats with limited capabilities. No, these are fully capable commercial satellites that nevertheless cost a tenth of conventional communications satellites.

The ORBCOMM constellation of satellites being built by Sierra Nevada Corporation is an example. If you were to visit the company’s factory floor in Louisville, Colorado, you would see four identical satellites under construction. Mass production is one of the keys to making spacecraft more affordable. Instead of building expensive one-offs, in the manner of the big manufacturers, the up-and-comers are finding economies of scale by building multiple spacecraft at once.

Sierra Nevada VP for space systems, Mark Sirangelo, calls it the Dell model of spacecraft manufacturing.

“We have a standard chassis in three or four different weight categories,” Sirangelo tells me, “and then much like the automobile industry or the computer industry, we can customize a satellite from having our customer look through a series of choices. I use the example of how Dell Computer can give you a custom computer from a series of standard choices. The term that I use is standardized customization.”

Sirangelo says each of his company’s satellites is 80 to 90 percent standarized, with only the remaining 10 to 20 percent left to customer choice.

Another way the new manufacturers are bringing down costs is by using off-the-shelf electronics and other components instead of expensive custom designed ones. Chris Lewicki, chief engineer for Planetary Resources, tells me that he and his team are finding consumer and industrial grade components that are just as hardy and adaptable to the extreme conditions of space as anything they can specially design and fabricate themselves or spec out.

“The reason why you end up with something costing $100,000,” Lewicki says, “is because someone had to spend a year of their life on it. But if we pick one up off the industrial supply line, well, they’re making 10,000 units and now the cost is amortized over all those units. So we are looking for as many of those as we can put into play.

As space becomes just another place to do business for many more types of companies, all of us down here on Earth will benefit.

A tantalizing taste of the future is the business plan of Skybox Imaging, based in Mountain View, California. The company is flying under media the radar right now as it builds and prepares to launch the first of its satellites. But it portends the coming of “high resolution, high temporal satellite picture of the Earth” for commercial use, as company cofounder Ching-Yu Hu explained it to me.

This means the ready availability of real-time satellite imaging, made possible by constellations of low-flying satellites—any one of which could be directly overhead at a given time. Imagine, for example, Google satellite maps that show the current traffic conditions of the streets you are driving through, and you begin to see the possibilities….