Space exploration goes private – ShareCafe
Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969 and delivered his prepared line which became famous: “This is a small step for man, a giant leap for mankind. Except that he was wrong. What Armstrong said was nonsense. He meant “a man” rather than just “man”.
No matter. Armstrong’s statement rings true. Since the start of the space age in 1957, when the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite orbit the Earth, more than six decades of space exploration primarily funded, designed and staffed by the US government have brought many rewards. In addition to instilling national pride and showing bravery, space exploration has boosted knowledge of the universe and led to many innovations related to satellites, global positioning, and weather forecasting.
Even though Armstrong blew his line, he was deeper than Jeff Bezos when he returned to Earth on July 20 after being thrown into the atmosphere just past the Karman Line which, 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Earth, usually marks outer space. “The best day ever,” was Bezos’ verdict while flying for 10 minutes in an unmanned rocket built by Blue Origin, a company he founded in 2000.
Perhaps Bezos should have said something more similar to Armstrong, as Richard Branson did when, nine days before Bezos, he zoomed in to an altitude of 80 kilometers in a manned space plane built by Virgin Galactic, than Branson installed in 2004. “We’re at the forefront of a new space age,” Branson said.
What’s new is that an entrepreneur-led space race is underway. Bezos and Branson – soon joined perhaps by other private companies – compete with Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Elon Musk to market the space.
SpaceX, as Musk’s creation in 2002 is called, is ahead. The company’s most notable achievement is that in 2015 it pioneered reusable rockets, which is considered to be the “only transformative technological change” that sparked today’s space race. ‘hui, because it reduced the costs of launching.
Many benefits are likely to flow from commercializing space, which is already a US $ 350 billion industry. Space tourism is likely to grow, having started on September 15 when SpaceX launched its first privately funded three-day space flight made up entirely of tourists. The standard offering (at US $ 450,000 per pop with Virgin Galactic) will orbit the Earth to experience weightlessness and gain an astronaut’s worldview. Another prospect is vacations on commercial space stations. A further step could be tourist trips to the moon.
A second and more important commercial motivator is added to the more than 5,000 satellites already orbiting the Earth. SpaceX, for example, plans to add 11,000 more satellites through its Starlink mega-constellation and has requested US clearance for another 30,000.
Private enterprise heading into the cosmos reignites and assists the government’s space efforts. NASA, in addition to using SpaceX to return to the moon as part of its Artemis program, is planning further trips to Mars and intends to search for Jupiter Europa’s moon for life. In May, China first landed a vehicle on Mars, two years after the country became the first to land a device on the far side of the moon. Beijing and Moscow announced plans in June for a permanent base on the moon.
Commercial space efforts are intended to advance scientific knowledge. The hope is that “microgravity” will allow for unique research that could lead to discoveries previously hidden by gravity. Another motive is to allow people to live beyond Earth. Bezos sees “a future where millions of people live and work in space.” Musk talks about “terraforming” Mars, which means he wants to destroy Mars to make the planet habitable for humans.
Commercialization of space comes with risks and drawbacks that could limit such exploration (ignore complaints about cost). The biggest risk is that space travel is dangerous. A lot can go wrong with rockets, and deadly events could derail space exploration, as they have in the past.
Another problem is that space exploration is likely to intensify global political tensions. Whoever rules space controls an avenue to deliver thermonuclear weapons via ballistic missiles and many other things. China’s space travel is expected to intensify the Sino-US rivalry. The United States in 2019 created a Space Command as the sixth military sphere to thwart China in space. A third downside is that the space race will lead to environmental damage, especially when it comes to climate change caused by fossil fuel rockets.
Whatever the doubts or downsides of the matter, the best economics of space exploration are beyond them. A private space adventure has begun that has already recorded achievements and, amid controversies and setbacks, is likely to release many more.
To be pedantic, private companies have long helped NASA when the commercialization of space may be dated to the turn of the century, so it’s nothing new, just escalating. The role of NASA and other government agencies in this private quest should not be underestimated. These private companies will have to be prepared to lose a lot of money. A techno-utopian element bordering on the incredible permeates the quest for private space. Some disappointment, perhaps a lot, awaits us.
Without a doubt. But today’s pioneer entrepreneurs in space are wealthy visionaries who won’t be easily discouraged. Prepare for a space race pursued by people who think they are on a philanthropic mission.