Private Companies Launching into Outer Space
Is it a good thing?
Who hasn’t looked up at the stars and wondered what’s out there? From my college astronomy class, one sentiment from Carl Sagan stuck with me. Sagan believed humans were “obliged” to leave Earth, if only to ensure our survival as a species. However, my young mind never dreamed that one day citizen astronauts could buy their way into space.
Now, four private citizen space travelers are getting ready to launch on SpaceX’s next flight aboard Dragon Resilience. SpaceX is the brainchild of entrepreneur Elon Musk. In case you have been living under a space rock, Musk is the founder, CEO, and Chief Engineer at SpaceX; CEO of Tesla, Inc.; founder of The Boring Company; (a subterranean geotechnical engineering company) and co-founder of tech companies Neuralink and OpenAI. Musk is one of the richest people in the world.
A brief on the first citizen spaceflight
The citizen piloted spaceship will take a three-day cruise around the planet with views from a new bubble window. The launch is targeted for Sept. 15.
Billionaire Jared Isaacman, who is paying for the mission, will be the mission commander. He put together a crew as part of a fundraising effort for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Haley Arceneaux, Chris Sembroski and Sian Proctor will launch alongside Issacman. who is a commercial and military trained pilot. The entire crew will also receive training from SpaceX. There will be no astronauts on board.
However, launching satellites, not space tourism, is the primary focus of SpaceX, which has brought both praise and concern.
How far SpaceX has traveled in a year
Launching citizens into space shows how far and how fast SpaceX has come in 131 missions since its inception in 2002, including the first flight with humans in 2020.
In case you missed the SpaceX launch on May 30, 2020, NASA astronauts went into orbit from the United States for the first time in nearly a decade. They were aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, which lifted off on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida—the same launchpad once used to launch astronauts to the moon.
Crew Dragon is the first-ever private human spacecraft to head for orbit. On board were Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, headed on a 19 hour journey to the International Space Station (ISS).
SpaceX has brought about a revolution in space flight. It is the first private company to launch a payload into orbit and first to send a private spacecraft to the ISS. Probably most significant from a financial standpoint is that the company was able to propulsively land, and subsequently re-use, an orbital class booster which would prove to bring about enormous cost savings. They were also the first, and still the only company to launch a car (a Tesla of course) with the maiden flight of Falcon Heavy in February 2018.
As NASA begins to partner more with private companies like SpaceX, there are some concerns about the privatization of space.
What NASA gains from the partnership with SpaceX
NASA gets to hitch a ride to Low Earth Orbit where most satellites reside, and shuttle personnel to and from the ISS for a fixed price. Meanwhile, SpaceX retains ownership of their intellectual property. Privatization of some of NASA’s projects also allows for enormous cost sharing and savings—an important factor considering NASA’s shrinking budget.
During the 1960s space race, NASA’s annual budget was as much as 4.5% of the overall federal budget. In recent years it has been slashed to .5%. Forced to shut down many programs and space exploration, NASA ultimately shuttered the Space Shuttle program in 2011.
SpaceX keeps the U.S. government involved in space exploration and research, areas that have been largely underfunded in the past decade. By 2014, NASA sought new solutions to rebuild its eroded space exploration programs, and turned to the private sector to help make up for financial shortfalls. The agency started its Tipping Point program, awarding a fixed dollar amount plus NASA resources, and covering 25% of the total cost for private projects of the agency’s choosing. The largest recipients are SpaceX and Boeing, with each company receiving $3.1 and $4.8 billion, respectively between 2014 and 2020.
Public/private partnerships may offer NASA an opportunity to rebuild the country’s position as the leading space exploration nation. This is important because China is building its first long term space station and is poised be the market leader in space, removing that distinction from America. If China is successful, it may cause military and economic vulnerability for the U.S.
“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”
It is such an uplifting sentiment considering all of the negativity we have gone through this past year. Let’s just hope privatizing space doesn’t come at a larger cost.