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American Kisses Spacecraft Monogamy Goodbye

In April 2010, President Obama said, "nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space, than I am." He called for more robotic exploration, extending the life of the ISS, and bringing in private contractors to create the...
Private firm Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft

In April 2010, President Obama said, “nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space, than I am.” He called for more robotic exploration, extending the life of the ISS, and bringing in private contractors to create the technology needed for a new human-rated rocket. While Obama doesn’t always get exactly what he wants, over the past few years the climate of the space industry has been anything but cold.

Yes, the space shuttle program is ending, but it is far from the end of America’s space adventure. A new wave of US-based private spaceflight companies are diligently working to create the spacecraft – and its workforce – of the future. People all over are getting involved. SpaceX, a leader in the spaceflight industry, has already successfully sent a privately manufactured rocket to space. They already have plans to help countries like Argentina send satellites into space as early as next year.

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Video of SpaceX’s sucessful launch of the Falcon 9

They are joined in their quest to send people and projects back into space by other homegrown companies like Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada and Boeing, who received a combined $291.3 million from NASA in April, 2011 "to advance commercial crew space transportation system concepts and mature the design and development of elements of their systems, such as launch vehicles and spacecraft.

Instead of being disappointed that there won’t be any more shuttle missions, we should rejoice in the fact that we have finally abandoned an outdated, underperforming and outrageously expensive form of transportation. The space shuttles, aka Orbiter vehicles, were conceived as reusable and cost effective “space taxis.” In reality, each shuttle mission cost around $450 million, and it took many months to repair each Orbiter to make them space-worthy again. They were also dangerous, with 2 major explosions and 14 deaths.

Jonathan Battat, a student in MIT’s Space System Architecture Group, exclaimed “I am going to have a career!” after watching SpaceX’s successful launch of the Falcon 9, the company’s answer to the retirement of NASA’s Orbiter vehicles. I spoke with him about the end of the Orbiter missions and the future of America’s space involvement.

Battat’s enthusiasm about space exploration at a young age is inspiring, as he and many like him are at the precipice of decades of work that will take us to new places and levels of understanding about the dark abyss around us. Having worked for Blue Origin and studied at the International Space University in France before arriving at MIT, he has witnessed first hand the excitement and financial encouragement spurring the industry towards substantially more advanced space exploration. He casually but very seriously throws around terms such as high power solar electric propulsion and safely stored cryogenic propellants.

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“We will see advancements in life support for long duration human spaceflight beyond Earth’s radiation belts,” Battat said. “We will get better at arriving at planets with atmospheres by aerocapture. Human-robot interaction is going to improve and greatly increase our exploration capability. Longer term, we will eventually see in-situ resource utilization (especially by making rocket fuel on the Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc), and possibly various types of nuclear propulsion.”

This list seems fantastic in all senses of the word, but people are working towards these technologies in very real ways. Sadly, I was told that we should not hold our breath for a space elevator or anti-matter propulsion, but I suppose those other advancements will be interesting enough.

The economics of space exploration are certainly daunting, but the impending privatization might be its savior. As Battat explains, “space is an industry with high cost and low profits. I think that will begin to change in the coming decade. For lower risk areas (possibly launch services but depends who you ask) this means private companies will assume more risk than the government customer. It means costs can be controlled so the business will be able to serve non-government customers and NASA can spend more money on more risky activities. I think this will be the big ‘game-changer’ for NASA in the next decade.”

Perhaps it already has. As Battat said, “I’ve heard anecdotes from people at established launch vehicle companies who are baffled by the prices announced by SpaceX – they see it as impossible to launch rockets at such low cost.” The economics are only going to improve, as space becomes more open to companies beyond governments, who have largely dominated it until now.

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These private actors might also be able to take over the cutting edge and complex projects formerly the responsibility of NASA. This, as Battat points out, has already happened in the space telecommunications industry.

“While the largest, most expensive telecom satellites may be government owned, most of the industry is built, launched, and operated by private companies,” he said. “In short: NASA is necessary but not all of space must be NASA.”

Other important sources of new technology are competitions and prizes. “It’s a different strategy for the same end,” Battat said. “NASA gives out selected contracts to companies. Making a big prize lets a lot more people work on something. The classic example is the Orteig Prize, which led to Lindbergh’s cross-Atlantic flight in 1927, motivated by the $25,000 purse.”

Altogether the participants spent many times more than the prize – and there were deaths and injuries along the way – but the feat was accomplished. This inspired the initial X-Prize, a $10 million prize for commercial spaceflight, which was won in 2004 by the “Tier One” project. A lot more than $10 million was spent by people such as Microsoft’s Paul Allen to develop the winning SpaceShipOne, on which Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft are based. Many more prizes have since been created, such as the Google Lunar X Prize, featured in the July 21 New York Times.

Peter Diamandis’ TED talk about the X Prize and space exploration

“In my opinion it’s NASA’s job to do the things that no other organization can do,” Battat said. “Space exploration firsts are expensive and risky, and that is why they inspire the nation. It’s bittersweet to see the shuttle retire. It definitely contributed to me following this career path, yet I’m excited for NASA to pursue a more sustainable space transportation system that will allow for more exploration firsts. I’ll only speak for myself, but understanding how vulnerable NASA is to political change is extremely frustrating and disheartening. NASA does great things, but it’s almost heartbreaking to find out what they could do if budgets [were] regularly built towards long term goals rather than changing with the political winds. Given my career path I may work directly for NASA at some point, but to be honest I’m more interested in being in the environment of the startup space industry.”

NASA is not abandoning space travel. Rather, it is revamping its vision and looking towards the future instead of continuing as it has in the past. It is also realizing the value of sharing the burden of innovation with both private companies and the international community. We are pushing towards a new technological breakthrough, and need the technology to make the next big push, as Obama remarked earlier this month in a Twitter town hall.

I really only had one question for Battat, though: when am I going to space?

“Virgin Galactic will fly you suborbital for $200k in the next few years. Russia will fly you around the moon for $150 million in about 5 years. I do think at least rich people will be able to regularly spend a week on an orbital hotel within our lifetime.”

Not bad.