By Cara Benette
Even five decades after the first human being stepped into the outer space, space travel, has been an exclusive preserve of governments, out of reach of a bulk of the planet’s seven billion people who hardly get an opportunity to travel freely or earn their astronaut wings. Till date only 546 humans from some 38 countries have traveled beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. A majority of them remained just a few hundred kilometers above the Earth’s surface, three of them only completed a sub-orbital flight; 533 reached the Earth orbit, 24 traveled beyond low Earth orbit and only 12 walked on the Moon.
All those who wished to go there had to hitch a ride in a Soviet, American or Chinese spacecraft. Even today, a handful of government organizations like NASA, Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), China National Space Administration (CNSA), European Space Agency (ESA), Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) dominate the outer space.
Since Vostok 1’s first human spaceflight in 1961, each visit ignited the human desire to stay longer each time and come back again. From a few hours to days and months, the Apollo, Salyut, Skylab, Mir and International Space Station programs taught humans to stay longer in the outer space. There was a time when Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov held the record for the longest single spaceflight in human history. He stayed onboard Mir space station for more than 14 months (437 days 18 hours) during one trip. Sergei Krikalev broke his record and holds the record spending the maximum 803 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes, or 2.2 years in space over the span of six spaceflights on board Soyuz, Space Shuttle, Mir, and International Space Station. As on date, the longest period of continuous human presence in space is 14 years and 20 days on board the International Space Station.
All that is going to change… This might be the beginning of a new chapter in space exploration. The outer space has suddenly come alive with many business opportunities. Many of these efforts may not succeed but are still worth trying.
The day is not far when private real estate developers’ stake claim over the extra-terrestrial space to set up human colonies, space stations, hotels and luxury resorts. Even golf courses on the Mars and Moon may not be a flight of fancy. Some asteroids have billions of dollars worth of gold, silver, lead, copper, iron, zinc and platinum, so mining them is another possibility. Moon Express, a private company already has plans to mine rare elements on the moon and bring them back to earth, while Texas-based Shackleton Energy intends to mine water ice from the lunar craters and convert it into rocket fuel for sale at the in-space gas stations. Many tourists will be visiting Moon and Mars in the next couple of years. So Taxis to moon, conducted tours or hired private passenger transportation and charter service is another hot area. Needless to say tourist guides and travel agents are welcome.
The days of government monopoly are over. Many private space launch providers and aerospace transportation companies have acquired the same, if not better technology; skill and resources to unlock the mysteries of the solar system and enable commercial human space transportation. By developing innovative, high-performance affordable and reliable rocket engines, boosters and next generation launch systems many of the private players have brought rocket science down to earth.
United Launch Alliance a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing has successfully delivered more than 80 satellites in orbit revolutionizing meteorological tracking, GPS navigation and battlefield surveillance. For the past eight years United Launch Alliance (ULA) is being paid about $225 million per launch to put a satellite in space almost every month for the US government.
Blue Origin, LLC a privately-funded aerospace company owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos is developing Vertical Take-off and Vertical Landing (VTVL) technology technologies to enable humans in space at dramatically lower cost and increased reliability. Both ULA and Blue Origin are jointly developing new liquid oxygen; liquefied natural gas (LNG) rocket engine BE-4 which they claim is the future of space launch. The next great US-made rocket engine will be ready for full-scale testing in 2016 and first flight in 2019.
SpaceX a private company was founded by PayPal owner Elon Musk created history when its Dragon capsule became the first privately-built spacecraft to ever to successfully dock at the International Space Station on May 22. Only four governments — United States, Russia, Japan and European Space Agency— have achieved this feat. SpaceX, which designs, manufactures, and launches the world’s most advanced rockets and spacecraft, is talking in terms of fully reusable vehicle something unheard of before. Musk’s ultimate dream is to create a self-sustaining colony on Mars and allow people to live on other planets. All this will certainly revolutionize the way we think of space and if space rockets could be reused like airplanes, the cost of space travel will be reduced at least hundred times and humanity will become a multi-planetary species.
Inspiration Mars Foundation a nonprofit organization headed by American multimillionaire Dennis Tito – the first private tourist who spent nearly eight days in space in 2001 is conducting a 501 day trip to Mars and back. It is scheduled for takeoff on Jan. 5, 2018 when the planets will literally align, offering a unique orbit opportunity to travel. The “fast, free-return” mission with two-member American crew – a man and a woman – and other passengers will pass within 100 miles of Mars before returning safely to Earth. The 2018 launch opportunity coincides with the 11-year solar minimum providing the lowest solar radiation exposure. It also represents the shortest duration roundtrip mission to Mars. This opportunity occurs twice every 15 years. The foundation is promoting it as a low risk, with no critical propulsive maneuvers, no entry into the Mars atmosphere, and no rendezvous and docking. The next launch opportunity for this mission (2031) will not have the advantage of being at the solar minimum, they say.
Call it fertile imagination or otherwise billionaire Robert Bigelow the founder of Bigelow Aerospace who made it big in Las Vegas budget hotels and real estate business is already talking in terms of hotels, offices and holiday resorts in space. He has raised some very pertinent questions about lunar property ownership rights. Bigelow’s dream to become the first builder or landlord in space came true when NASA signed a $17.8 million contract with Bigelow Aerospace to build an inflatable pod for the International Space Station in 2015. Bigelow’s business model is to replicate whatever happens in real estate business on earth- sale-purchase, lease, sublet or rental in space. What he is saying makes sense because no astronaut, scientific laboratory or tourist already has a place to stay. It also makes sense for Astronauts to rent Bigelow Aerospace Alpha Station and also get to use its shared research facilities like centrifuge, glove-box, microscope, furnace, and freezer instead of transporting everything from Earth. Astronauts and scientist can exclusively focus on their own experiments, without bothering about operations and maintenance of the space Station. Another option is to lease and have exclusive access to a roughly 110 cubic meters space (equal to an ISS module) for a period of 60 days for $25 million. Bigelow Aerospace’s packages for pick-up and drop to the Alpha Station start at $26.25 million per astronaut using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule or $36.75 million per seat using Boeing’s CST-100 capsule and the Atlas V rocket. Bigelow hasn’t forgotten advertising – a company or country that wishes to promote its brand name can get year-long naming rights for the Space station at $12.5 million. Smart isn’t it?
It isn’t that the outer space is providing a opportunity only for the big businesses, ask Jeff Feige the owner of Orbital Outfitters, a space suit manufacturing company also making full-scale space vehicle mockups close to the Midland International Air & Space Port. Orbital Outfitters has set up Midland Altitude Chamber Complex (MACC) the world’s most advanced human-rated commercial altitude chamber testing facility capable of testing real flight hardware in a near vacuum. It also has to its credit the world’s first commercial spacesuit — Industrial Suborbital Spacesuit (IS3) made for the Lynx. Since then Orbital Outfitters has provided suits work for commercial space companies and NASA. Orbital Outfitters also builds space vehicle mock ups for both promotional and engineering purposes.
All these are just tips of the ice berg; the real discovery of space has just begun….