Crowding the cosmos: space travel turns private

SpaceX’s Dragon was launched on 19 February to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). Part of the event’s significance is that the launch site used was the same one that sent Neil Armstrong to the moon, having been leased to SpaceX by Nasa. This instance symbolises an increasing move towards the privatisation of space exploration; for Nasa this launch exemplified an ongoing transition towards greater reliance on the private sector for low Earth orbit travels. Currently several private companies hold contracts to transport supplies, and sometimes even astronauts, to the ISS.

While advancements in manned space exploration have arguably been stagnant since the Cold War ‘space race’, the push for further discoveries is considered paramount for a number of reasons. The next logical step for many is putting man on Mars. It is the closest planet to Earth with a rocky surface and in whose distant past has supported many of the pre-requisites for carbon-based life, thus it is most suited for investigation and possibly, in the far future, even colonisation.

Beyond the dreams of science fiction which imagine a resource boon and terraforming transformation, human exploration of Mars could yield results unknown and unquantifiable, and teach us about the origins of life in our solar system. Yet travel to the red planet and further manned space exploration could also be beneficial in the here and now. The 1969 moon landing inspired and excited a generation of scientists and engineers, a generation that went on to develop personal computing, mobile phones and many other technologies we use on a daily basis. Is it reasonable to suppose that a welcome by-product of sending humans to Mars will create millions of new scientists, industries and challenges upon which our civilisation can thrive?

Many in the field consider privately-financed exploration to be the future.Despite the existence of state plans for moon and Mars missions in the coming years, such programmes have a poor track record of completion.

The Bush Sr. administration programme, the 2004 Constellation programme, and Obama’s plans for Mars missions are just a few examples of state-sponsored programmes that were not given adequate funding and were eventually cancelled. With administrations changing every four to eight years, it is far from certain that any long-term plans can be realised, which can go some way to explain Nasa’s stagnation since 1973.

Today space travel is often criticised for the huge sums of money required, despite it utilising less than one per cent of the US federal budget. Nasa currently pays Roscosmos State Corporation, who own the only craft capable of carrying humans to space, at a cost of $82 million per seat. The private sector’s streamlining of such costs means that alternatively, seats on SpaceX or Boeing rockets would cost considerably less at $58 million and launches at $50 million, this compared to the $4 billion currently spent by the US each year.

Some argue that extra-governmental exploration facilitates international cooperation and progress, and that commercialisation causes greater competition for innovation, leading to faster development. Since Nasa opened its doors to the private sector over 13 years ago, it is hard to argue that there have not been some amazing advancements. Private outsourcing seems to be the current trajectory, and we can only hope that this signals the opening of new volumes in human history. 

Image: Pixabay

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