Private Space Exploration
Tomorrow Starts Today: How Private Enterprise is Bringing Space Travel to the Masses
On June 20th, 1969 Neil Armstrong took his historic step for mankind and with it became the first human to set foot on the moon.
However, in the forty years since that momentous event our attempts at manned space travel have been paltry at best, and dead in the water more often than not. The situation reached a nadir in 2012 when historic budget cuts were suggested for NASA.
Given this sad state of affairs it might seem that space is to remain the final frontier for the foreseeable future. But a number of prominent entrepreneurs say that isn’t the case, and they’re putting their money where their mouths are.
With some of the world’s best and brightest devoting their talents and treasure to private space flight it may only be a short time till many of us are able to follow in Mr. Armstrong’s famous footsteps.
The Names in the Game
NASA dropped the ball.
Even before their budget was slashed they weren’t doing much to advance the possibilities of modern space travel. The reasons for this are numerous and complicated; much more than we can cover in a short article. I think Dr. Peter Diamandis put it succinctly when he described NASA and the military-industrial complex to which they’re beholden as “dinosaurs” and entrepreneurs such as himself, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk who are moving the possibilities of space travel forward as “fuzzy mammals”.
We all know who won that evolutionary battle.
The fact is, space will be explored and it won’t be governments leading the way. The greatest exploration the human race has ever known will be led by men and women of courage and vision who enjoy the financial support of generous donors.
Donors like Anousheh and Amir Ansari who together funded the Ansari X PRIZE, a $10,000,000 cash prize awarded for the first non-government to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks.
Donors like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen who financed the Burt Rutan designed spacecraft SpaceShipOne that won the Ansari X PRIZE.
Donors like Richard Branson, the world-famous entrepreneur and adventurer whose Virgin Galactic is making sub-orbital spaceflights for space tourists a reality.
NASA may have dropped the ball but these entrepreneurs and others like them have picked it up and run with it.
Peter Diamandis’s X PRIZE Foundation is behind the Ansari X PRIZE.
The X PRIZE Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to “bringing about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity”. If you’re having a difficult time understanding how the hobbyhorse of a few eccentric billionaires contributes to the “benefit of humanity” I understand.
Researching a cure for AIDS? The benefits of that are pretty clear. But space travel? Doesn’t that seem like a bunch of grownups with too much disposable income just trying to live out their Arthur C. Clarke-inspired childhood fantasies?
Perhaps. But I think such a simple criticism is selling the efforts and passion of many men and women short.
When Dr. Diamandis was asked “Why explore?” he gave three answers: curiosity, fear, wealth.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s given us humans countless innovations and advances in technology. The technologies that are developed to make space travel a reality could positive influences in a number of far-reaching fields.
There’s also the issue of fear. At the risk of sounding like a bad sci-fi plot there’s a chance (probably greater than most of us would like to realize) that our planet could become uninhabitable in the very near future.
Physicist Stephen Hawking put it this way: “Life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by disaster. … I think the human race doesn’t have a future if it doesn’t go into space. I therefore want to encourage public interest in space.”
If there’s even a slim chance that our existence as a species might depend on space colonization I think that’s as good a reason as any to advocate for it.
Finally, there’s wealth. Space is teeming with the metals and minerals we value so highly down here on earth. If the universe is a bakery full of delicious goodies the earth is but a crumb. Whether it is mining asteroids or chartering a popular space tour airline, there’s big money to be made out among the stars.
A Traveler of the Heavens
A lifetime of watching big budget sci-fi movies and playing videogames have desensitized us to the otherness of space, making it seem familiar, mundane even.
But pause for a moment and consider the sheer vastness of the universe; consider its infinity. And then think that in your lifetime you could have the opportunity to explore some small measure of that vastness for yourself.
The mind reels.
When you really stop to think about it the idea of routine, affordable space travel is a lot to get your head around.
And it’s not far off into the future. The desire for it is certainly there, and technology is quickly catching up.
I’ll leave you with this:
The average age of the engineers responsible for putting the first American on the moon – the average age of the men and women responsible for making the impossible possible – was just twenty-six.
And yet they made it happen. Most of them before their thirtieth birthday.
We again find ourselves on the threshold of a significant moment in history. And just as our parents told us the stories of where they were and what it was like to watch the first man take a step on the moon, so too will we tell our children the stories of what it was like to watch man become a routine traveler of the heavens.