private space

Forget NASA, Private Space Companies Are The Future Of Space Exploration

Photo courtesy of NASA Marshall via Flickr

The 20th century Space Race saw world governments — namely, that of the United States and the Soviet Union — vying to accomplish feats of galactic proportions.

Several countries have now been to the moon and back; even more have launched animals into the ether, among other adventures past the Karman line.

But it’s only been as recent as the last decade that a new type of race has been born: that between private spaceflight companies, competing over new breakthrough missions to the moon, Mars, and beyond.

Why private space companies are gaining traction

private space

Though in America, NASA was once the sole anchor between Earth and the skies, recent years have seen private companies taking the wheel. The result? A looming end to the government’s space monopoly. Here’s why:

1. Funding for private space travel is more diverse than ever, while NASA has suffered budget cuts.

Despite a request for $18.5 million in 2016, the American government’s funding for NASA is notoriously small, especially in comparison to military funding.

Though $18 million is larger than ever, it is still less than half a percentage of the federal budget. The budget for NASA, as can be seen below, has been narrowing in percentage since its peak in 1966.

NASA-Budget-Federal.svg

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But the federal government isn’t the only contributing factor when it comes to funding space missions; in contrast, private space companies lead by ambitious entrepreneurs, some promising to launch humans into space independently, have been booming.

As of June 2013, ten billionaires have made serious investments in private spaceflight companies like SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, Stratolaunch Systems, Planetary Resources, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic.

These are just a handful among dozens of other thriving private space companies with big ideas. The budget boost, if granted, will benefit NASA’s commercial space program by granting the private companies involved $1.2 billion.

2. New aerospace technology in the hands of private companies makes space travel cheaper and more accessible.

NASA was advised to retire from hands-on space shuttles after 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia crashed and killed seven astronauts. It was just a year later that private spaceflight was officially legalized, so that going forward, private companies could develop the technology instead of NASA.

NASA officially retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011.

But now, with aerospace technology becoming more cost-effective, spaceflight equipment can be designed and manufactured by just about anyone with the skills and a fairly deep wallet.

Such capabilities are not without risks, as several commercial rocket accidents in late 2014 have proven. As both risk and failure are essential to success (NASA had a 50 percent failure rate at first), it may be that private companies are now better suited to the inherently dangerous task of trial and error.

3. Private space travel is legal at last, and nearly legal for commercial flight

In spite of several acts passed in decades prior in favor of privatization, heavy regulation and approval processes rendered private spaceflight effectively illegal until 2004 when it was signed into law.

But that doesn’t mean private spaceflight is completely a go. Commercial passenger space flights are still effectively illegal, because the FAA (U.S. Federal Aviation Administration) has yet to grant any private company a commercial operator’s licence, nor set safety rules for space flight.

As paid passengers of Virgin Galactic (including celebrities like Justin Beiber and Leonardo DiCaprio) wait for their trip to space with bated breath, it won’t be long before regulations catch up with the pressure of demand.

Off to the races: Who’s going where?

With NASA’s budget and billionaire-backed private operations, public-private partnerships will allow for increased access and cost-effective travel to space.

Unfortunately, this sometimes means pitting companies against each other — currently, SpaceX and Boeing are being funded to develop next generation spacecrafts for NASA’s manned missions to the International Space Station (ISS), but only one will make the cut at the end, until which time US astronauts rely on Russia to get to space at $71 million a seat.

But without government in the equation, the goals are equally huge and the race much hotter. Here are some of the lofty plans private space companies have:

Race to the moon:

Personal spaceflight:

  • Companies such as Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace, and Space Adventures have space tourism plans in the works.
  • So far, only Russia’s Soyuz has actually provided space travel to less than a dozen tourists, each of which paid $20-40 million for a trip.

Mars mission:

  • Dutch nonprofit Mars One is planning a series of one-way trips to colonize Mars, which plans to be funded by broadcasting the endeavor on TV. Elon Musk of SpaceX also wants to colonize the red planet.
  • Entrepreneur Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars Foundation plans to send a married couple on a fly-by past Mars in 2021.

The takeaway

Government monopoly over space may be on its way out, but it’s not exactly democratized — after all, space exploration is still a rich person’s game, as evidenced by high price tags and billionaire backers.

Though it remains to be seen how successful — and more importantly, safe — private endeavors will be independent of federal collaboration, all signs point to history in the making.

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Jennifer Markert