*This is the third in our series featuring senior thesis projects
Many people often sit and wonder about the future of mankind. Are we destined to live on this terrestrial ball forever, or will mankind propagate among the stars? What role will private companies play in any expansion to the stars? With new rapidly growing technologies, it is becoming ever more likely that the average person will travel to space in this lifetime. Also, mankind is witnessing one of the most prolific innovational periods of space travel since man has set foot on the moon. It is entirely possible for the average person to enter space by the 2050’s, along with a new, exciting economic field, and with that is the question of which sector will be leading this new era of space travel: private or public.
This topic interests me because I believe that the future is in space. Space travel in general has always fascinated me since I was a kid. My ultimate dream is to eventually head off for the stars, and explore new worlds beyond our own. To summarize, space is the future, and I want to be a part of it.
One of the key points of current observation in the industry is the expansion of the private space travel sector in the broader industry, normally dominated by government agencies. According to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), “First, gradual improvements in managerial practices and the falling cost and size of technology are slashing launch and payload costs. SpaceX has expressly designed its Falcon rockets, for example, to maximize standardization, which, in turn, has reduced the number of processes and the tooling required prior to any given launch while diminishing unit costs of critical parts” (NATO, 2018). The author is the secretary of state for France, who spearheads NATO’s space capabilities program. This report was used to inform one of the most powerful military alliances in the world, in order to analyze new innovations in the private space sector, as well as its application for the security of the Western world. However, many Americans have different space aspirations from the military alliance. According to a survey taken for Pew Research, “The United States remains the only country to have put people on the moon, and, as of 2018, the large majority of Americans consider it essential that the U.S. continue to be a leader in space exploration. However, many Americans do not think future manned trips to the moon – or to Mars – should be a high priority for NASA. Instead, they put higher priority on other roles such as monitoring Earth’s climate or asteroids that could hit Earth” (Johnson, 2019). While many officials remain optimistic for the future, this report shows that most of the American public has shifted their perception of NASA, from the cutting edge of space exploration to a more administrative position, regulating climate studies and tracking potentially dangerous asteroids. This would suggest a shift towards private companies becoming the face of space exploration. There are many reports suggesting the future is with private industry, but just as many suggesting NASA will still be the front runner of these efforts.
NASA was created in 1959, and since has been the nation’s center for space affairs. Many suggest that role will persist well into the future. According to NASA’s chief financial officer, Jeff Dewit, ”NASA is opening the International Space Station to commercial opportunities and marketing these opportunities as we’ve never done before,” He elaborates further; “The commercialization of low Earth orbit will enable NASA to focus resources to land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024, as the first phase in creating a sustainable lunar presence to prepare for future missions to Mars” (Greenfieldboyce, 2019). NASA has usually tried to stick with proprietary operations for most of its missions. However, this unprecedented decision to open commercial partners for the ISS has shocked many, as it was previously thought only NASA itself could carry out such actions on the ISS. This new shift shows how NASA continues to stay relevant in its role as a space-exploring agency. ”A reusable rocket system, as Elon Musk said, may someday lower the price of a trip to Mars to be as cheap as the cost of buying a house” (Azzahra, 2018). While this source describes SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology, something that only SpaceX can do, it signals a shift towards a sustainable rocket economy. Under the previous model, rocket boosters could only be used once, before crashing into the ocean. But with new reusable rocket boosters, cost will come way down. This is technology that NASA has looked into, and will employ in its strategy to remain relevant since it was scaled down under the Obama administration. Some researchers have considered a future where NASA and private space corporations share space exploration responsibilities.
The rise of space corporations does not necessarily mark the end of NASA. There are possible outcomes that have both entities working to advancing humanity’s understanding of the cosmos. An article from Space.com reminds readers that ”… about 75 percent of the worldwide space enterprise is already commercial, said Scott Hubbard, an adjunct professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University” (Urrutia, 2019). This reinforces the idea that the public and private sector of the LEO industry, implying that NASA will likely shift to a regulating role of commercial activities on the Moon and Mars, after establishing infrastructure on both of those celestial bodies. Another article re-iterates the aforementioned principle; ”The total global space industry is worth around $400 billion a year, of which only 22 per cent is run by governments, and the public and private are not necessarily in competition with each other” (Varghese, 2018). This is another source pointing out how much of LEO activity is not run by government agencies, reinforcing the idea that was afore mentioned. Whatever NASA’s role will be in this emerging economy, it is sure to be a necessary one as the United States explores the universe.
To conclude, there has never been a greater time to be interested in the exploration of outer space. While the agency and industry suffered as a whole when the Obama administration shut down the Space shuttle program in 2011, (and forcing American astronauts into years of embarrassment by hitching rides to the ISS on Russian rockets), the industry is now stronger than ever, and is poised to thrive again and return to the exploration of the cosmos. This quote from Courtney Allison sums up the new developments perfectly: “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.”
The central question which guided these interviews was “What is your vision for the future of space travel?” Many questions were asked around this theme, ranging from broader questions ( What is your vision for the future of space travel?) to more specific questions (Where do you see Mars in terms of plans for human exploration?). These interviews were focused on the opinions of various industry experts in different areas of the burgeoning space travel industry, answered by two industry experts in different fields; one a rocket engineer, and the other an orbital flight planner.
The first person that was interviewed was an engineer for SpaceX, and provided his insights into the state of commercial space flight. The engineer suggested that commercial space flight would proliferate in the coming decades, especially with new reusable booster technologies being perfected by SpaceX and trying to be replicated by others. He also suggested that NASA would take a more regulatory role as the commercial space flight sector expands; a FAA for space travel.
The second person interviewed was an orbital flight planner, who also gave his position on the commercial space flight sector. While not as qualified as the first person who was interviewed, the orbital flight planner offered several valuable points to further the investigation on the future of space travel. He shared many of the same positions and stances as the engineer, but added that it was possible that the revenue from Spacex’s low earth orbit activities (Starlink) could be used to fund further programs to colonize Mars.
Given the above points, what then, is the future of space travel? The various pieces of collected literature and the two expert opinions suggest a future dominated by commercial activity, with NASA acting as a regulatory agency, rather than a primary vehicle of space travel. This conclusion can be reached by examining the current and prospective growth of the commercial space flight sector (NATO, 2018) , and by analyzing past and current NASA functions (Greenfieldboyce, 2019) (Urrutia, 2019). While some may cite the development of the Perseverance rover (slated for a Mars landing in 2021) as evidence that NASA will not relinquish the role as the primary mode of space exploration for the United States, this point is dismissible because it ignores the commercial contracting of eighty percent of the Artemis program, as such elements of those missions (Gateway, SLS, the lunar lander) are being contracted to many private firms.
With the future of space travel pointing towards a commercialized future, one can wonder about the implications that such a future would bring. Such a commercialized future could run potentially two ways, one were space travel becomes similar to the current model of airline flight. Another possibility is that the world will see a return to colonial style colonization of the Moon, Mars, and other nearby celestial bodies, as international space law has yet to catch up with developments of space travel. Whatever the future of space travel holds, it is sure to be one of humanities greatest achievements, and will impact the world for centuries to come.
Bockel, Jean-Marie. “The future of the space industry” NATO Economic and Security Committee. 17 November 2018. https://www.nato-pa.int/download-file?filename=sites/default/files/2018-12/2018%20-%20THE%20FUTURE%20OF%20SPACE%20INDUSTRY%20-%20BOCKEL%20REPORT%20-%20173%20ESC%2018%20E%20fin.pdf. Accessed 10 October, 2019.
Johnson, Courtney. “How Americans see the future of space exploration, 50 years after the first moon landing” Pew Research Center. 17 July, 2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/07/17/how-americans-see-the-future-of-space-exploration-50-years-after-the-first-moon-landing/. Accessed 10 October, 2019.
Greenfieldboyce, Nell. “As NASA aims for the moon, an aging space station faces an uncertain future” National Public Radio. 7 July, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/07/07/734474121/as-nasa-aims-for-t he-moon-an-aging-space-station-faces-an-uncertain-future Accessed 17 October, 2019.
Azzahra, Raras. “SpaceX, Reusable Rockets, and the Future of Space Travel” Inkspire.org. 7 May, 2018. https://inkspire.org/post/spacex-reusable-rockets-and-the-futur e-of-space-travel/-L9x8mRlj3_PF4Wsm-fZ Accessed 18 October, 2019.
Urrutia, Doris. “How Will Private Space Travel Transform NASA’s Next 60 Years?” Space.com. 1 2 October, 2018. Accessed 5 November 2019. https://www.space.com/42113-nasa-future-private-spaceflight.ht ml.
Allison, Courtney. “The Future of Private Sector Space Travel,” Armagh Observatory. 8 August, 2019. Accessed 5 November, 2019. https://armaghplanet.com/the-future-of-private-sector-space-tra vel.html
Varghese, Sanjana. “One small step for private companies: how the future of space travel is being redefined” NewStatesmanAmerica. 9 January , 2018. Accessed 5 November, 2019. https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/space/2018/01/ one-small-step-private-companies-how-future-space-travel-bein g-redefined