7. Space exploration (part three)

I know that instead of writing about various technologies, I have vastly focused on space technology. However, apart from being one of my favourite topics, this is very fitting, as this week has been remarkable for space exploration. Not only we manage to see the launch of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, the last of the three major missions aiming for the red planet, despite the weather, COVID-19 and an earthquake! But also, we are expecting to see Bob and Doug splashdown on-board of the Crew Dragon in their return from the International Space Station, the last step for SpaceX to certify its crewed spaceflight capabilities. For this reason, after briefly discussing the mechanics and history of space exploration, today, I want to conclude this series with my thoughts on what we could expect from this exciting field.

The old days of space exploration

Space has always been a messy business, and a big part of this problem has been the intrinsic relationship between the space industry and politics. Not only the most prominent space agencies around the world are vulnerable to the disposition and whims of their supporting governments, but also these same governments are their main clients. This situation led to countless issues affecting the long-term viability and efficiency of numerous space programs, as shifting governments modify the objectives and priorities for space exploration. The United States and NASA were particularly affected by these problems.

With this in mind, NASA took the visionary decision to launch the Commercial Crew Program. A plan envisioned to foster the development of space technology and capabilities of commercial partners, as opposed to in-house. However, to understand what this change meant, first, let’s consider the previous way to go to space.

The United States government continuously provided funding for space programs such as Apollo or the Space Shuttle. NASA then used these recourses to subcontract the development and construction of various components for the mission, such as engines, launch vehicles (rockets), crewed modules, and even computing capabilities. The subcontracting companies, such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, would build the elements and send them back to NASA, who finally was in charge of assembling, testing and operating the mission at hand.

In theory, this model doesn’t differ much from the way many organisations operate today. However, there are at least three aspects, in my opinion, that doomed this model. First, monopolies, the companies awarded with the development of components were the only ones approved and allowed to develop such components. This restriction gave them an enormous leverage power if they decided to ask for more resources or delay the development processes. Second, loss of focus, with an increasing number of contractors NASA’s role shifted from a research and development agency to project manager and PR agency. Along with a high sensibility to budget cuts and priority changes of the shifting governments, NASA wasn’t able to maintain a long-term plan. Third, market forces, this problem has to sides. On the one hand, the price of space exploration was rapidly increasing due to the inefficiencies previously discussed. On the other hand, the largest customers for space operations, particularly launching capabilities, were mostly government agencies, restricting its commercial viability. This dual-sided problem limited the value that NASA, and other space agencies, could demonstrate to their citizens, and hence, lose interest from the public.

A new dawn in space

With the end of the Space Shuttle program, NASA and the United States lost their in-house capabilities to launch equipment and crew into orbit, forcing them to rely on their international partners. However, reflexing on their previous experiences and observing the increasing importance of space technologies, NASA launched the Commercial Crew Program. This plan sought to invest in commercial partners so that they can develop, build and operate future missions. NASA would invest in various companies to develop technology, expand their capabilities and some initial operations, but then these companies were free to explore other customers and markets. Increasing competition and reducing costs.

SpaceX is perhaps the most famous company thriving under this model. With early but increasing investments after each successful mission. In less than twenty years, it became a leading company in the space industry and the first commercial provider capable of delivering crew to the International Space Station. Even Boeing is now forced to play catch up after they fail to reach the ISS, despite receiving 60% more funding. However, SpaceX is not the only company out there making a name for themselves. Rocket Lab, One Web, Virgin Galactic and many others are investing in ventures that seek to take advantage of the increasing business opportunities emerging in the space industry. From nano-satellites to communication, from transport to space tourism, from asteroid mining to the habitation of other worlds; space is positioning itself as the new frontier for business and humankind.

Still, now more than ever, we must be cautious and attentive about the consequences of these endeavours. Not only mindful of its economic effects but also its social and environmental impact. In these new 20s, we must reflect on our roles, and take decisive action to address the major challenges of our generation; health and wellbeing security, social inequality, and climate change. We are at a new dawn for space exploration, but we must not forget why we choose to venture into the unknown. Our first and foremost responsibility is to leave our world a better place, and I for one am hopeful that the new generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and social champions will keep this in mind as we venture into this new era.

With this, I will leave the topic of space exploration—for now. I hope this was as rewarding for you as it is for me, and feel free to reach out if you would like to know more about this subject. In any case, I’ll see you all tomorrow.

Last but not least, I would like to wish the best of luck and a safe return to the astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley in the conclusion of the Demo-2 Mission.

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board Crew Dragon

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