The Great Space Race

For those who had given up hope of man’s reaching for the stars, the news that came back in April was little short of revolutionary. NASA, which had long put forward a sound scientific and economic case for the robotic exploration of space, made a startling announcement: it had been charged with getting people to Mars by 2033. That’s right – people. What’s more, it had a five-phase plan for getting them there, too, with the first – conducting tests at the International Space Station – already underway.


But it is in the following phases that – for any sci-fi fan especially – the adrenaline really peaks. Six rockets are set to be tested and launched between 2018 and 2025, each delivering components for the building of what is being called the Deep Space Gateway – a space station near the moon, which will serve as an outpost for astronauts on route to the red planet. In subsequent phases, due by the end of the next decade, astronauts will inhabit a Deep Space Transport craft at the gateway for 400 days. Early the following decade those astronauts will be restocked – and then sent on their way to Mars.


It won’t be easy, of course. Keeping astronauts healthy, physically and mentally; moving the life-support and other equipment necessary for what will be a two- to three-year round trip; the designing of new kinds of spacecraft. Challenges abound – not least because NASA will be operating on a budget equivalent to 0.5 per cent of the US total; the Apollo moon missions took 4 per cent. But at least it seems the US government is seriously back in the game of manned space flight.


Indeed, that’s perhaps the most radical aspect of this announcement. With the mothballing of the Space Shuttle and the prior cancelling of a Mars mission, with NASA currently incapable of putting people into space itself and the Russians doing so using Soyuz technology now half a century old, the future of manned spaceflight increasingly looked to be falling to private enterprise. With its huge, impressive advances in this arena over the past few years, it’s easy to see why some have said the prospect of space exploration has not been so exciting since the 1960s. It would seem that, with the exception of Bill Gates, if you’re a multi-billionaire of a geeky technological bent, you just have to have your own space programme.


Most spectacularly, Elon Musk’s Space X – which has its own hugely ambitious plans to be on Mars within the next five years – is on its way to devising a re-useable launch system; it achieved a landing and recovery of a first-stage rocket in 2015, and earlier this year re-launched a landed first-stage rocket on another mission. And if the private delivery of materials into Earth orbit is looking to prove economically viable, why not people too – or at least people with a lot of money? Musk recently announced Space X’s intention to send two paying passengers on an orbit of the moon by the end of next year.


More publicity savvy, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic – which has already taken more than $80 million (AED 294 million) in sales – may not have met its promise to date, but following the crash of the VSS Enterprise in 2014, last December the replacement spaceship, the VSS Unity, completed its first glide test – it’s edging, albeit painfully slowly, towards offering sub-orbital flights at around $250,000 a ticket, considerably cheaper than the many millions paid by the first space tourists, the likes of Dennis Tito and the aptly named Mark Shuttleworth.


Meanwhile Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has sent a rocket up to 100km and then landed it again, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has his Stratosphere orbital cargo delivery mega-plane project. Other billionaire entrepreneurs are thinking less about how to get into space, as where to stay when we do. Robert Bigelow, for example (he’s the owner of Budget Suites of America) founded Bigelow Aerospace with the intention of building a private modular space station using the Nautilus or much bigger Olympus inflatable habitats developed by his company.


No wonder attitudes are shifting. “Some people still think of it all as fanciful, but 100 years ago the idea of hopping on a 747 was unimaginable,” as Peter Diamandis has put it – he’s the man who kick-started corporate interest in spaceflight with his X-Prize, an American national competition offering a $10 million award to the first private company to develop a re-useable launch vehicle at least capable of taking passengers into sub-orbital space, won by Scaled Composites, a company that then joined forces with Branson. “There’s only one marketplace to get space travel moving: self-loading carbon payloads – people, in others words. It’s people that will drive space travel.”


But who will move those people? That NASA has finally come back to this idea is certainly a relief to some – and perhaps all the more so given the agency last year letting slip that ultimately it’s looking to sell off the International Space Station to some kind of commercial interest. High-profile figures within the space world – the likes of astrophysicist and Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson – have certainly been vocal in their skepticism that our way into deep space will come via private business.


“Private enterprise will never lead a space frontier,” Tyson has said – and precisely because it’s the frontier we’re talking about. “In all the history of human conduct, it’s as clear to me as day follows night that private enterprise won’t do that because it’s expensive. It’s dangerous. You have uncertainty and risks, because you’re dealing with things that haven’t been done before. That’s what it means to be on a frontier.”


After all, while the progress made by the likes of Branson, Bezos, Bigelow, Musk et al is exciting, that progress was funded by their own very deep pockets – they haven’t needed to seek investors, most of whom typically demand a return over a foreseeable term. Yes, the free market may be a force for innovation – as has become crystal clear over the past few months alone. Yet there is the argument that this is not the best foundation for the long-term planning required of space travel, which is why a government agency would be better suited.


Corporations, the thinking goes, are geared towards quarterly reporting and shareholder influence. That makes the likes of a project that might require 20 years to come to fruition – or, in the case of something like interstellar travel, might take centuries – and which shows no return on investment over that time, unlikely to get the continual funding it needs. This is why the early airlines were also government-owned, to ensure the maturity of the globe-remodelling infrastructure they would in time provide. Furthermore, while the free market means that only the best ideas survive, those ideas may not be best over the long term, and companies are naturally averse to the prohibitive costs of junking an idea and going back to the drawing board. Companies naturally lean towards less expensive, but not necessarily the best ideas, too.


Yes, it’s taxpayer money it plays with, and job creation always presents a political bias, but a government agency can afford to be more concerned with getting results than with the cost of doing so. This is one reason why such agencies are prone to cost overruns – but then they are invariably involved with doing something that has never been done before. Accurate costings are almost impossible.


It’s government agencies that are also more likely to appreciate the social benefit of a project, regardless of the cost: the James Webb telescope, the successor to Hubble, has seen its budget skyrocket over what was planned, well beyond the point at which any corporation would kill the project. NASA, in contrast, is ploughing on because the advantages of being able to peer that much deeper into space are, in its view, more than worth it. Similarly, it’s not a private company that last year flew its longest manned space mission to date, launching a space laboratory and sending astronauts to live on it for a month. It’s China, a country whose wealth and non-democratic political system allows it to plan long-term. As DeGrasse Tyson notes, by way of a fun analogy, the first Europeans to go to America were not the Dutch East India Company, but Christopher Columbus, an explorer bankrolled by Spain.


Yet the future of space flight could, in fact, lay neither in the hands of mega-bucks businesspeople ultimately only able to invest in proprietary technology so far as it’s predicted, in the long run, to turn a profit; nor in the hands of government agencies – subject to their political overlords’ concerns for votes at a time when many polls reveal a public’s concern that space exploration is one big waste of money. Contrary to a habit of viewing the governmental and corporate sides of space exploration as pitched in opposition – or of seeing the corporate as simply set to replace the governmental – the future may, rather, prove to lay in a mish-mash of both. It’s something Virgin and NASA quietly recognised back in 2007, when they signed a memorandum of understanding that they would work together and share their respective advances.


“I think we’re seeing a new mini space race between the main private players – Elon Musk is clearly doing all sorts of things to push the boundaries of all sorts of travel,” notes Jeremy White, head of transport at design innovation business SeymourPowell, which was charged with giving a human touch to the interior of the Virgin Galactic concept. “But you’d have to say that it makes sense for governments to get involved, both to help with the science and the funding.”


Certainly NASA has said that it’s engaging with Space X because it doesn’t have, for instance, the company’s rocket landing capability – one that it needs to go to Mars. “We are,” as NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, Bill Hill, has succinctly put it, “going to need everybody.”


Look back over recent years, in fact, and the intersecting of public and private is well underway: in 2012 Bigelow Aerospace, for example, began development work on an expandable habitable module under a $17.8 million contract from NASA. It’s just one of 22 companies, all American, that have won contracts with the agency, including Boeing but also less well-known space-minded companies the likes of Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada. Last year the US government even gave private spaceflight company Moon Express regulatory approval to – in some distant future – fly to and land on the moon, and this spring it announced a push to reduce regulatory barriers to encourage innovation in the private space exploration sector. “The world will be safer and stronger if our ideals of free enterprise… are the driving force of commerce and settlement throughout the galaxy,” as Ted Cruz, leader of the Senate sub-committee on the topic put it, sounding somewhat like a member of the Trade Council in The Phantom Menace.


This outsourcing is happening around the world, too: last year the Indian government called on firms to build a spacecraft to deliver the satellites the nation is becoming increasingly adept at building. 2016 also saw the Luxembourg government announce an initiative – set to become law later this year – to provide the legal and regulatory framework to guarantee private companies the right to keep any minerals or commodities that they can extract in space; three of the biggest players in space mining have already settled their European operations in the tiny country.


What’s more, it cuts both ways. In developing its commercial space station project, Bigelow Aerospace, for instance, signed agreements with seven sovereign states to utilise the on-orbit facilities that might follow. And it’s surely telling that the space systems proposed by NASA’s Mars mission will, it’s said, be accessible to private companies. Indeed, what looks to be developing is a spirit of friendly rivalry, a rare example of collaboration not only between competing companies but competing philosophies. As former NASA deputy administrator Dava Newman has noted, the best of all worlds that is going to make what he calls “the new NASA”.


That can only be a good thing, because another aspect of the future of manned spaceflight also looks to be increasingly clear: it’s going to be a long, arduous, costly and, on occasion, fatal business – one that is unlikely to be taking anyone but highly trained professionals anywhere for some time yet. And the 21st Century space race has to keep thinking big. The next necessary step will not be perfecting a public-private partnership but – as reflects a shared humanity once we’re off-world – a partnership of nations. And that’s something history has shown to never be easy.