Neil Alden Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon, in 1969. At the time, he was 38 years old on the Apollo 11. It took 76 hours, and 240,000 miles to get there, but he made history and coined the iconic phrase, ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’. While mankind has the technological capabilities of returning to the moon, the Apollo programs largely ground to a halt by 1972 after the US/Soviet Cold War space race.
Politics and budgets have derailed many modern-day moon landings with NASA and other international space agencies. But, private enterprise has picked up the cudgels and is barreling full steam ahead.
In May 2020, SpaceX became the world’s first private enterprise to send human beings into space. The commercial space industry is now being bankrolled by private companies, with limited government participation in many cases. It is all geared towards affordable travel, tourism, and living in space.
Whether this ultimately amounts to space settlement in the future remains to be seen. Consider the value of the space-for-earth macro economy which amounted to $366 billion in 2019. The high-end technology encompassed in this massive global economy includes IoT infrastructure, earth observation, and telecom. There are hundreds of peripheral industries, technologies, and systems supported by the space economy.
There is no doubt that the costs of space travel have come down dramatically, facilitating a huge uptick in consumer demand. To be precise, there are two types of economies that currently exist side-by-side, the space-for-earth economy, and the space-for-space economy. The latter has stalled somewhat, given the extreme complexities of these types of missions.
This involves mining asteroids, comets, and other heavenly bodies for the construction of a space-based ecosystem to facilitate humans living in space. One day, this may well become a necessity when conditions of earth are no longer conducive to supporting life.
Unique Space Technology
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is a front-runner when it comes to space technology. Interestingly enough, NASA now promotes plenty of opportunities for public-private partnerships, paving the way for the private sector to create cutting-edge technology for use in space. Robotics are central to space exploration and settlement. To this end, space-qualified borescopes kitted out with a micro inspection camera are now fully integrated with robotics. These unique products are now being created by leading micro-imaging technology companies.
Innovative new tech is being used across the board, as the switch from government-based control to private enterprise accelerates. Enhanced video transmission feeds, geolocation positioning, communication, and miniaturization of technology are sacrosanct. Space conditions are substantially different to those on earth, with temperatures ranging from -127°C to 100+ degree Celsius, combined with high levels of deadly radiation, excessive vibrations, and vacuums. Today’s companies are delivering functional solutions for these types of space conditions.
Private Enterprise Is Fast-Tracking the Race to Space
While government may drag its heels, private enterprise is fast-tracking the development of the space-for-space economy, thanks to a handful of entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos to name but a few. The companies including SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Boeing are making tremendous advances into the space-for-space economy by bringing civilians into space.
For now, it’s all about tourism. But in the future, it could be about settlement. From a purely government-based space exploration model, we are now shifting towards government/private enterprise, and fully privatized space exploration initiatives. The technological ramifications of such activity are astounding. SpaceX for example has a bold objective of taking people on earth to settle on Mars.
The technology currently exists, albeit at high cost, to put civilians (with requisite training) into orbit. Already, 3D printing technology in space bearing the ‘made in space’ label is catching on. Top-tier technological products and innovations such as HD fiber-optic cables, space-qualified micro-video camera technology, 3D printed large metal beams, and many other out of this world innovations are already up and running.
There is no end to the possibilities with the current technological space race. Consider the lucrative contracts that have been signed to facilitate space-for-earth usage such as the $142 million contract commissioned by NASA with Maxar Tech for low-earth orbit spacecraft, or the Made in Space Inc $74 million contract for 3D printing on NASA spacecraft.
In order to achieve all of these monumental feats, regulations will have to be relaxed to enable high-risk activity for the space economy to evolve. Currently, legislation makes it difficult for private enterprise to initiate the types of space exploration that is needed to set up a space-based settlement. Ultimately though, higher safety levels will be needed, along with out-of-this-world technology to provide for the needs of space travellers.
Most of the activity that is regulated will be taking place in low-earth orbit, for commercial activities to take place. The economic development of space is an entirely different subject, with property rights not quite established by any regulatory framework. Aerospace companies and earthly rivalries are a natural concern, such as those between the US, China, and Russia. But collaboration will ultimately be required for successful space exploration and settlement.