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Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Stratolaunch Systems, XCOR, and Blue Origin. These companies have all been formed since 1999, and together are the bulk of the truly private space industry (i.e. are not dependent on government contracts or subsidies and intend to develop space for commercial purposes). There are also very well-funded startups looking beyond LEO for business - Planetary Resources and Bigelow Aerospace.

These companies have big bucks behind them, much more than earlier attempts. The success of SpaceX (admittedly the only commercial success so far, and still greatly bolstered by government business) makes the success of the others seem likely for the first time.

Why is this happening now?

One answer is the sudden flurry of nerd billionaires. A gaggle of Google billionaires, two dot-commers, and two MicroSoft billionaires are responsible for the bulk of this. They've got lots of money and they like space. But I wonder if the maturity of certain key technologies have now brought us to a tipping point. Is it the micro-sensors, micro-controllers, and microchips? Is it the vast power of CGI design software? Are there other things?

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The most likely cause of the flurry of recent actual developments has to be the funding source. There have been development companies that have tried and failed, (Rotary Rocket, Kistler) due to lack of funding at crucial times. When you have a sugar daddy willing to fund you through the tough times, it is much easier to get through them. That is a very major contributor.

At the Cubesat level, we are seeing basic smart phones sufficing as computer/control systems with sufficient sensors to do a lot of work that cost thousands to millions of dollars in the past.

That obviously is immaterial for the most part to a product like a Falcon 9, but does not hurt.

Another possibility is the crowd sourcing model is allowing small contributions from many people to fund largish projects. It has its limits but can help companies get over that first hump.

American companies get a freebie boost, since NASA documents are available to them. For example SpaceX credits the Apollo projects notes on the parachutes used back then to seriously reducing costs of developing chutes for the Dragon capsule.

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    $\begingroup$ I certainly go along with the idea that having lots of billionaires in one country who are into space is a key factor. But they don't throw their money around without good reason. I feel like there has to be root changes in tech that convince them the time is ripe. The other things you mention don't seem like significant factors. NASA docs have been around for decade, Cubesats aren't going to fund much. $\endgroup$ – kim holder Feb 8 '15 at 3:51
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    $\begingroup$ Re The most likely cause of the flurry of recent actual developments has to be the funding source -- Don't forget about C3PO. NASA's Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office (C3PO) alone has put well over a billion dollars into new space. The DoD has added to that. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Feb 9 '15 at 0:07
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidHammen that... that can't legitimately be the name. NASA's got jokes. $\endgroup$ – Magic Octopus Urn Nov 20 '18 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ @MagicOctopusUrn -- That legitimately is the name. nasa.gov/offices/c3po/home/index.html . Engineers have a rather dry sense of humor. And engineers (along with bureaucrats) love their acronyms. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Nov 21 '18 at 9:49
  • $\begingroup$ At least until some humor-deprived bureaucrat doesn't get the joke. For some reason, the "About C3PO" link at nasa.gov/offices/c3po/home/index.html now gets a 404 error. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Nov 21 '18 at 10:08
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Because it's cheaper to design rocket now than it was before

Relatively

The world GDP doubled since the 2000's. Meaning we (humans) have more money to spend on rockets and expensive stuff, but also higher possible returns on investment.

Absolutely

Computers. Especially CFD, Computational fluid dynamics are both more performant, accurate and vastly cheaper. And this is an understatement.

  • The best super computer of 2000 had performances comparable to today's iPad
  • The cost of building (super) computer per giga flop went for the million dollar range in 2000 to the tens of dollar range today. Operating costs went down accordingly too.
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  • $\begingroup$ +1 to this answer. In the early days of NASA, engineers designed everything on paper (with slide rules) and relied on intuition, experience, and a laborious design, test, improve cycle. For example, If you wanted to figure out the aerodynamics of a shape, you'd need to draw it out, build it, test it in a massive wind tunnel, and then improve the design and repeat. Today, this process can be done almost entirely digitally making the iterative improvement process orders of magnitude cheaper and allows digital designs to be tested before the first part is cut or first bolt is tightened. $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Nov 20 '18 at 21:29
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Apart from the points

  • money is readily available today compared to more than a decade ago (venture capital and in general exponential growth of money supply)
  • computational costs related to design and simulation have dropped below a critical level such that rather realistic computations are affordable (not to speak of the experience with and knowledge of simulation methods)

which have been mentioned before, I'd like to add that

  • Blue Origin and SpaceX saw and exploited the possibility of reusable rocket boosters. Non-reusable rockets can only be optimized within a local cost efficiency well, while the leap to reusability brings the overall costs much closer to the global optimum. (*)
  • general technological advancement and rapid expansion of the internet throughout all areas of tech and life has created potential demand for satellite-based internet, a market the size of which is estimated to be large double figure billion dollars.
  • the traditional, government backed industrial conglomerate do not appear to progress in terms of internal efficiency as much as new start-ups are naturally forced to do. For the first time, it appears possible that new companies could actually substitute long-established companies in this formerly uncompetitive market.

(*) This was possible to general technological advancement. What both SpaceX and Blue Origin are trying to do at the moment is to optimize their rockets locally within this new, lower cost efficiency well. Another global optimization step is not foreseeable yet, but might be something like non-chemical propulsion, fusion energy, warp drive, etc. There are many futuristic ideas such as these.

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In earlier times the

  1. Technology was not in the hand of normal people
  2. Money was not much
  3. Need was not there
  4. Time for doing all the analysis was high because of hand calculations and lesser computational power
  5. Technological advancement in manufacturing and other systems were low

But now

  1. Technology is available to the normal people like NASA documentations
  2. Money is increasing rapidly
  3. Because of small satellites the launch frequencies is increasing and as we all know that cannot be attain by government entities. So, the private companies are coming which are working just to increase the revenue and hence the productivity.
  4. Time for doing the analysis is reducing drastically with the help of computers and other software
  5. A lot of technological advancements like miniaturization, additive manufacturing, etc.

So based on these points we can say "what led us to this point?".

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