President John F Kennedy’s speech to the United States’ Congress on the 25th of May 1961 encapsulates the romanticism that has adorned the endeavour of space exploration to this day. A President asking the representatives of his people to fund a daring, groundbreaking mission to, “before this decade [was] out, [land] a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” has the hallmark of true democracy – despite the backdrop of the cold war and the power-play that the Apollo programme was designed to be.
It’s therefore a difficult pill to swallow for many that the next 60 years of NASA’s missions to space will be supplemented and perhaps outshone by the efforts of billionaires who are funding their own missions to the cosmos – surely interstellar space would remain free of the trappings of Amazon Prime? It seems not. However, unbeknownst to most – 75% of space enterprise is already commercially funded.
If that seems like a lot it’s maybe because not everyone would think of satellites as space enterprise, but they are. Your DAB radio stations, Wi-Fi and TV networks are mostly privately owned. The key shift in recent years is human space enterprise in the private sector, e.g. Elon Musk setting up a fully staffed Tesla headquarters on Mars (this is not his current plan but upon reflection doesn’t sound as joke-y as it would have done 10 years ago, see orbiting Tesla below).
Jokes aside, NASA functions in our times by working in tandem with private companies. NASA has contracts with SpaceX and Boeing to create capsules to send astronauts to the International Space Station; the first one is due to take off next year. In fact, unmanned capsules containing only supplies manufactured by private companies have already had many successful missions. Scott Hubbard, an adjunct professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University, explains that NASA allows private companies to provide services like this in low earth orbit so that NASA can get on with pursuing further regions of space where there is “no business case”. There is an interdependence between public and private space sectors – the public sector requires the smaller, quicker, financially lucrative missions to be farmed out to Elon, Jeff and others in part to fund further travel but also to free them up to expand our understanding of things beyond our own solar system. Furthermore, the fast paced innovation of private sector space programs give way for technological innovation which arguably would take NASA decades to perfect if acting alone. Also, private companies are not beholden to the roller coaster of politics that is the modern US, which unfortunately NASA is. Delays in confirming a NASA Administrator held up its plans to build the super rocket Space Launch System by a year.
However, private companies are moving beyond the point of relying on government contracts for expansion. There is a new Space Race in town between SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos. Bezos has done well to ensure the success of smaller range reusable rockets – emphasis on the reusable part. Blue Origin is attempting to fix the public image problem of space travel being costly and wasteful. SpaceX on the other hand is already moving on to bigger things such as the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket) which will take humans into deep space.
If humans in deep space by the hand of Elon Musk sounds fanciful then you would be right, there is a great deal of work to be done before that goal will be reached. Instead, SpaceX has settled on the much more reasonable goal of colonising Mars. By 2022 Musk hopes the Big Falcon Rocket will launch the Big Falcon Spaceship to Mars with supplies and necessary equipment for setting up a human outpost there. The BFS would land on Mars early 2023 and on-board equipment would conduct preliminary tests of Mars and build on existing data to plan for the first human arrivals. Also in 2023, the BFR will take the first humans on an orbital trip around the moon to demonstrate its capabilities. Elon expects boots on Mars by 2025; these lucky first astronauts would live in the earlier spacecrafts. 2028 would see the construction of the first Martian Base, and by the 2030s; the first Martian City!
At this point, the expectations of the short timeline become fantastical. But this is nothing compared to what SpaceX plans for the future of Mars; to turn it into Earth. Yes, you have read that correctly. SpaceX plan to Terraform Mars; essentially a forced climate change to make Mars warmer and wetter and more Earth-like. NASA doubts this is possible on Mars due to its size and potential lack of pockets of trapped warm gas. But the passion and drive Elon Musk has to create a second home for humanity is unparalleled, even by competitor Jeff Bezos. If anyone can do it, maybe it’s Elon?
In conclusion, the future of private sector space travel could not be more exciting; the mixture of Space Race, idealism, romanticism and blinkered ambition are reminiscent of a time not too long ago when a President stood in front of his Congress and asked them to fund a mission to the Moon, which was considered the height of ambition at the time. SpaceX’s vision may seem unrealistic, but we have done crazy things in the pursuit of knowledge before. I’d bet that we’ll do it again.