How we can explore space like never before

Austin Bray, Staff Writer

In 2011, the United States retired its last space shuttle and it seemed the days of a government dominated Space Race and all of its wonder and advancement had sputtered, coughed, and died. In recent months though the torch has been passed on to a new era of privately owned, capitalist space based companies. This new breed of space based corporations is poised to reinvent the economy of the United States and usher in a new golden age; with the right support and the right laws they may change the course of history.

Last month, NASA gave contracts to two companies to ferry astronauts and equipment to and from the International Space station. These are the first private companies to launch their own spacecraft. But these companies are just the tip of the iceberg. Private companies are beginning to pick up where the government left off in spaceflight research and implementation. Asteroid mining, Mars colonization, hotel space stations, all of this sounds like something out of Star Trek but it is closer to reality than one might think.

The development of extraterrestrial travel and why it has advanced so slowly is because of the tight regulations placed by the FAA. Right now, no private company can launch their own spacecraft without NASA or the FAA having some level of operational control. Now many of these regulations are necessary for the safety of the crew and to ensure that no one is building a nuke in their garage. But this federal oversight is also choking out the small companies which are often times the driving force of innovation.

Think of the Wright brothers, Steve Jobs, and Nikola Tesla. All of these great inventors began with an impossible dream and the freedom to chase after it. None of these ground-breaking advancements were made with government contracts and none of them were thought to be possible until one visionary made it a reality. When the airplane was first invented, there was an explosion of advancements and designs akin to the Cambrian explosion. What was once a fool’s dream was now a global phenomenon.

Tens of thousands of planes were built, crashed, rebuilt, and perfected until 1914 when we had our first fighter aircraft and bombers. Within twenty years we had Charles Lindbergh, transcontinental flights and commercialised air travel. In twenty more we had the jet age and rockets that could cross the atlantic under five minutes. All this was possible because we allowed the technology to mature and advance.

Private companies are already beginning take advantage of the resources that space offers. One of these companies is Planetary Resources, the world’s first asteroid mining company. They have designed their own equipment, have private funding, and have absolutely no competition. In recent history, advancements in aerospace and space technologies have been spearheaded by government organisations such as NASA and the U.S. Air Force. But now that space is becoming more and more available, the next big breakthroughs will be made by private companies not government organisations.

For example, Reaction Engines Ltd. has recently released the concept of a new space plane called Skylon. It uses an advanced rocket/ramjet hybrid to propel it up to mach 5.4 and into low earth orbit. The Skylon space plane has an estimated cost of $1,000 per kilogram per launch which is almost twenty times cheaper than the space shuttle.

What we as a country and a species need to realise is that we can do far more than what we think is possible.

— Austin Bray

What we as a country and a species need to realize is that we can do far more than what we think is possible. We went to the moon with a craft that had less computing power than the birthday cards we buy at Hallmark that sing a crappy pop song to us. We have smartphones that can do things that our best supercomputers couldn’t do ten years ago. We haven’t made an advancement in spaceflight since the 1980’s besides small tests and theoretical reports. This isn’t because we’ve gotten stuck or gone as far as our technology can take us. It is because the public lost interest. The government cut the funding, the saturn V was put in a museum,  and our “small step for man” took a giant leap backwards.

If the government allows the technology to advance and take its natural course,  the advancement of space will be faster and more efficient than we could possibly dream of. It is time to rediscover the explorer within ourselves and take that next giant leap for mankind.