As Elon Musk once again captures the world’s imagination at the International Aeronautical Congress, we look at the booming space industry.
T he first human beings walked on the Moon in 1972. Once America ‘won’ its space race, the American public’s appetite for a costly space programme slowly dissipated. Early dreams of man living amongst the stars remained confined to the realms of fantasy. One unlikely achievement from the end of the space race, however, was a heightened spirit of global cooperation in space exploration.
At the 1998 International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement, fifteen major governments agreed to help construct and secure a “permanently inhabited civil Space Station for peaceful purposes.” This has been carried on with a recent NASA agreement with Roscosmos (the Russian space agency). Signed on September 27, the two agencies committed to building together an orbital facility around the Moon dubbed “The Deep Space Gateway.
But amidst these grand statements of national power stood economic retrenchment. Public space agencies faced constant budgetary scrutiny from their domestic governments, restricting human presence in space to more affordable missions in Earth’s orbit. Famously, the Space Shuttle was scrapped in 2011 under intense criticism of low safety and high expense. There have been some exceptions. In 2017, funding for India’s space agency, ISRO, rose by 23%, even amidst continual cuts to space programmes elsewhere around the world.
One small step for public-private cooperation
Whilst public space agencies were generally cut, the private sector boomed.The 21st century has seen the emergence of a wave of companies looking to fill with endless ingenuity and, more importantly, less restrictive budgets the public sector’s void.
NASA recognised this pattern in the late 2000s, setting up its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services strategy. It hired private contractors like SpaceX and Orbital ATK to support missions to space, “freeing the agency to focus on developing the next generation rocket and spacecraft that will allow us to travel farther in space than ever before.”
SpaceX is the industry pacesetter. After a string of early rocket crashes, its Falcon 9 technology now sets the bar for reliability in the industry – the company, in sharp contrast with the losses of its governmental counterparts, is currently valued at $21 billion. In 2010, it became the first private company to return a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit. Two years later, it was the first private company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station – it has gone on to perform twelve such missions for NASA. And earlier this year, it achieved the first reflight of an orbital class rocket, potentially opening the door to reusable rockets, which would remedy the costly failings of the Space Shuttle programme.
Democratising space research
Private influence challenged old accepted norms in space exploration.
Made in Space was founded in 2010 with a credo to “dream on Earth, build among the stars.” It changed thinking on the process of entering space. Rather than viewing going to space as the end result of work on Earth, Made in Space integrated the zero-gravity environment of space into the construction process. The result was its 3D printer – first installed in the International Space Station in 2014 – heralding a future in deep space where astronauts could print parts as needed.
Equally, falls in technology costs widened the number of possible participants in scientific research.
In particular, nanosatellite technology provided smaller, non-governmental agencies with a chance to construct small, relatively cheap, and incredibly precise instruments to send into space. The CubeSat project, for example, costs a mere $19,000. This could lead to a future where individual universities and laboratories could send monitoring equipment into space, vastly improving our understanding of the cosmos.
The final monetary frontier
Other start-ups, however, focused on the material offerings of the solar system. Chris Lewicki co-founded Planetary Resources in 2009 with this exact idea in mind. Ten years had tired him of the slow and stilted manner in which NASA conducted its observatory missions. Planetary Resources targeted the 15,000 near-Earth asteroids for platinum group metals, hoping to end humanity’s reliance on Earth’s resources and beginning, by the 2020s, a lucrative outer space industry.
This industry would be heavily automated. Drones would prospect potential sites on asteroids, hunting for resources, and marking locations for the landing of mining machinery. Swamp Works’s ‘Extreme Access Flyers’ are one example of this approach, creating low-energy drones, similar to the quadcopters found on Earth, that could probe isolated hollows for out of sight resources. This would all be driven by AI, with probes programmed to perform operations without human intervention. Resources would be processed on site, minimizing costs, and maximizing payload efficiency.
Space is viewed, therefore, as an entity ripe for commercial exploitation. In 2015, President Obama signed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act into law, promoting “the right of United States citizens to engage in commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources free from harmful interference.” The apparent intent was to remove problematic regulations and foster a thriving, US-led commercial sphere in space. But some legal scholars disputed this logic. They argued that it represented a direct perversion of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, asserting US right to exploit and gain effective control over objects in space. Space could in effect become another “Wild West.”
To infinity and beyond
The space industry is nothing if not optimistic. Elon Musk’s varying visions for the future are illustrated in an extraordinary variety, ranging from his ambitious goal to put humans on Mars by 2024, to the more outlandish idea of setting off nuclear bombs on Mars to change the climate.
Yet talking to The World Weekly, Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz, Baruch S. Blumberg Chair of Astrobiology at the American Library of Congress, believes that the space industry should recognise that “our human frailties do not disappear when we leave Earth.” We live in a society where “science and technology” are vested in the privileged few, she argues. A future of a solar system exploited for commercial gain risks perpetuating this structural inequality into mankind’s spacefaring future. The $250,000 price tag for a seat on Virgin Galactic could be a warning sign that this future has already begun.
Perhaps the answer lies in learning from our mistakes on Earth. Arriving at inhospitable worlds could “help us understand how to live in challenging environments on our own planet,” Dr. Walkowicz contends. Instead of a point of continuity, space travel could be a rupture for mankind, encouraging us to build a sustainable future, and avoid destroying another planet other than our own.