When people think of space travel, many things often come to mind: NASA, the Soviet Union, the Space Race, and the more ambitious proposals popularized in science fiction books, movies and TV shows. But what doesn’t often occur to people is that colonization of outer space and much of the advances in space exploration look set to be achieved not by NASA, but by private companies. Here are some things to know if you’re thinking about jetting off to the Moon or Mars soon.
The Major Players
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has grabbed the headlines in recent years, but more companies are driving forward with bold plans. Notably, another major player in the private space race is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin.
Amazon was known for far-reaching price efficiencies achieved in their early history, with employees even using old wooden doors as desks to keep the cost base of the whole company low. Bezos has stated his goal is to bring the same low prices to space travel.
Virgin Galactic is also almost ready to market the company’s first commercial flight, which has been delayed for several years. There has been recent interest from Stephen Hawking in being a traveler aboard the first Virgin Galactic flight.
Bigelow Aerospace is aiming to be the first company to make hotel stays in outer space possible. It’s founder also founded the Budget Suites of America hotel chain. They have successfully put unmanned space stations into low earth orbit, proving the viability of their designs.
StratoLaunch Systems is another exciting company in this industry. They have been successfully developing an ultra-efficient spacecraft, similar in size to a jumbo jet. If they are successful with this project, this could bring about technology that makes space travel much cheaper.
One of the biggest developments in private space travel has been the use of the technology to make it financially viable on a large scale. While NASA and other space agencies do not have to contend with a dollar return requirement for their missions, private spacecrafts need to be efficient enough to make the journeys worthwhile.
While it might seem like fuel costs are the main burden in this regard, it is the cost of the shuttles themselves that is the biggest obstacle to economically viable space flight. The materials and work that go into making a shuttle are extremely costly. To overcome this, companies need to develop reusable crafts so the cost can be amortized over many missions.
The Economics of Private Space Travel
The big difference between NASA and private companies is, of course, money. While governmental bodies can use tax money for their budgets, private companies must expand development capital that, hopefully, will result in something economically viable. For now, the average space tourist will pay around $32 million for the privilege of going into space.
It is often said that innovation and technology are often driven cyclically from one driver to another – from military use, to big business use, to consumer use. If this is anything to go by, the economic gains made by private space companies (SpaceX recently became the first to make a profit) are a good sign for the development of consumer space travel.
While there have been many space tourists, the goal of private space travel to many people would be permanent extraterrestrial habitation. This is a very long way off, although commentators in the 1950s expected we would already be there!
NASA recently discussed two methods of making space viable for human habitation. The first, terraforming Mars, would involve various ambitious undertakings, such as building an atmosphere on the planet that would sustain life. This is a long process (very long – some estimate possibly 100,000 years).
Another option for long-term space colonies is to create biospheres in low earth orbit to allow people to get accustomed to living for long periods in outer space. Interestingly, this could be achieved in 20 or 30 years, according to most experts.
We are at a crucial phase in the development of private space flight, so there was some uncertainty about how President Trump would handle the budgets and plans for the coming years. Thankfully, he has made positive commitments to furthering exploration, and also said he would increase public-private partnerships for space travel (which has been a major source of progress for private space exploration in the last decade).
A recently signed bill by Trump reaffirms NASA’s commitment to launching a manned mission to Mars by 2033. Elon Musk has said that more needs to be done, but it is heartening to hear that at least in the next few years there should be no bureaucratic roadblocks for private space travel.
Risks and Challenges
There have been several setbacks for private space travel, including launch failures and business failures (like that of Virgin Galactic in 2014). Many commentators have used these examples as evidence that private space travel in the near term is not viable, and we should proceed with caution and low expectations.
However, others only view these failures as minor setbacks. After all, SpaceX has a better record of accomplishment than NASA in terms of successful missions.
There has been concern about the environmental impact of the private space race. Contending with the dangers of pollution has become a higher priority for businesses in the past decade, and it will be interesting to see what the pioneers of this industry do to limit environmental risk.
Another concern is that the possibilities of space travel will not be open to many, and that only a select few will be able to afford it, making it a rich person’s pursuit, which would possibly damage the perception of space travel in general. Musk and Bezos would not agree, as both have said that their goal is to enable millions of people to experience extra-terrestrial flight.
A lot is going on in the private space industry at the moment, and clearly there are numerous factors in play worth monitoring. However, overall, the outlook is extremely positive.
In the next 10 years, expect to see more high-price space travel tickets. However, there are signs of breakthroughs that will at least make trips to low earth orbit reasonably affordable in the next decade.
We have successfully leveraged technology to explore every inch of the planet, but we will need all the engineering talent available to make private space travel a possibility.