Today in Technology History

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September 9

Exactly twenty years ago, a U.S. company launched the world's first privately-funded commercial rocket. That launch marked the unofficial start of a new phase of activity in space -- one characterized by the increasing involvement of private enterprise.

In the early 1980s, the abundant potential for profit in space was obvious to companies that hoped to use satellites for commercial purposes. That meant someone had to launch all those satellites into space, and various governments and private businesses were getting ready to compete for lucrative launch contracts.

Among the companies working on launch technology was Space Services, Inc., a seven-person firm headed by former astronaut Deke Slayton (1924-1993), who left NASA in February 1982. In 1981, the company's first attempt at a rocket launch had ended with an explosion on the ground. By September of 1982, the company was ready to try again, this time using a 37-foot tall rocket built mostly from surplus missile parts, including a solid-fuel motor purchased from NASA.

September 9, 1982 started with sad news for the small company: one of their most important investors, an 85-year-old oilman whose Texas cattle ranch was hosting the rocket launch, suddenly died in the morning. Nevertheless, Space Services, Inc. went ahead with the launch of Conestoga I at 11:15 a.m.

For this test launch, the $2.5 million rocket only carried a payload of 1,097 pounds, including 40 gallons of water intended to give a dramatic visual show in the sky. (The sun obscured any view of the water.) The rocket reached an altitude of 196 miles before crashing back down, as planned, into the Gulf of Mexico. The entire flight lasted 10 and a half minutes.

Despite this successful launch, and another in 1989, the company struggled to find customers and was soon eclipsed by the bigger firms and government entities that came to dominate the launch market. But small companies with innovative ideas still find space alluring, and private enterprise continues to seek new ways to make money in space.

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