In 50 years of space research, the way we get to space has changed very little. It is expensive and inconvenient to launch a massive payload from the surface of the Earth in order to conduct research remotely, let alone send humans to the heavens. Then, in 2010, President Obama announced NASA’s budget for that year which detailed a privatisation of sorts. Commercial spaceflight would be utilised by NASA and countries around the world in order to drive costs down and make spaceflight more efficient for all.
Naturally, the plan had its naysayers and you may think it’s a bit dangerous to privatise anything NASA does. You’d be right to be cautious, for what NASA does on less than 1% of the national budget is incredible and America should be very proud to have it as a government agency. But at the end of the day, that’s pretty much just what it is – a government agency. And because of that, it is subject to endless political wrangling over everything it attempts to do. If Obama says he wants NASA to send men back to the moon, chances are the White House opposition will block his move at every possible opportunity. If Obama tries to fund an asteroid capture system, chances are it will get argued and torn to pieces until the final plan that comes through hardly resembles the original ambition. That right there is exactly why we have failed to build on the Apollo program of the 60s and 70s, probably the most inspirational thing mankind has ever achieved.
Nowadays, NASA comes under ever increasing scrutiny for every decision it makes and how NASA gets to space had become a real issue by 2010. The space shuttles were an ageing technology that needed replacing but approximately a decade had passed since they really should have done something about it. Which is why privatised spaceflight makes sense. A for-profit commercial company is under no pressure from political parties to develop its business plan and its technology in any particular direction. Instead, it can focus on building spaceflight machinery suitable for the modern era that can be far more sustainable than the space shuttle and can be utilised by NASA and anyone who wishes to conduct research, sell flights to space tourists or whatever.
One such company, SpaceX, last year launched the Dragon space cargo capsule and delivered equipment successfully to the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX conceived, designed, built, tested, and successfully developed their Falcon launcher line for less money than the US government spent on the Ares launch tower, a project they have since abandoned. If NASA utilised SpaceX’s resources on half its orbital science missions, they could save between $2-3 billion over five years. Additionally, several science research projects could be conducted on the same flight with relative ease. SpaceX’s presence means costs will be lowered, spaceflight will become more efficient and scientists will be able to directly conduct their experiments in space. In 2014, SpaceX plans to launch an even bigger rocket which can carry twice as much for a third of the price of its competitors. It’s a fair bet that the 2010s and 20s will be as big a step forward in space research and technology as the 60s and 70s were, which is incredibly exciting.
Other companies such as Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace and Blue Origin are all building cheap reusable sub-orbital vehicles (“suborbital” meaning less than 100km from the Earth’s surface). The key word is reusable, which will dramatically bring costs down and provide access like never before for space researchers. Virgin Galactic predicts it will launch once a day, with each launch providing room for six researchers to set up experiments within the vessel – that’s about 2000 opportunities a year just from that one company to learn something we previously didn’t know about our local environment. Pretty good, given that NASA currently launches only 20-25 suborbital missions per year.
This could really revolutionise space science. Think how much we could learn, for instance, about how to equip astronauts for space travel by sending one up every day for tests. Then there’s the “ignorosphere”, a region too high for aircraft and weather balloons and too low for satellites to dip without falling back to Earth, that until now we know very little about – we could afford to get up there and take measurements to see what’s going on in our atmosphere’s high altitudes. That could teach us all sorts about enigmatic atmospheric phenomena like high-altitude electrical bursts known as red sprites and blue jets. And of course, there’s the potential for space scientists to do what nearly all other scientists do and get up there to study their research on the spot without needing remotely controlled robotics.
Politically, it makes sense to go commercial from a global perspective. Of the world’s 194 countries, only about 10% are ISS partners – the rest of the countries would now have the opportunity for extensive research in space, as well as national prestige. Already, a company called Bigelow Airspace is manufacturing space stations to conduct such research.
In 50 years of going to space, the way we have got there has changed very little and there has been little in the way of inspirational space transport methods. But all that is about to change…