“NASA spent millions of dollars inventing the ball-point pen so they could write in space. The Russians took a pencil.”
― Will Chabot
For more than 50 years, governments of the world have poured billions of dollars into developing rockets to carry humankind into the stars above, steadfastly allocating ever greater portions of national budgets to space programs. The highest allotment NASA received from the Federal Budget was in 1966 at 4.4%, compared to 0.47% in 2015, highlighting just how important the government viewed this endeavor during the Space Race. In fact, for decades spacecraft were solely limited to national governments as they sought to monopolize the entire industry. Until the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act there was an effective ban on privately-funded space travel, forcing all would-be space tourists to go through NASA for a ride. After passage of the bill, the talk of space tourism suddenly rose from a science-fiction fantasy to a very real industry, with significant investments from wealthy individuals such as Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Elon Musk, and Robert Bigelow, all of whom went on to fund their own projects for space exploration.
The track to legalization of private space flight was a long one, beginning in 1962 with the Communications Satellite Act which allowed private industries to build and launch their own satellites into orbit. The very first privately-owned rocket launched into space did so under contract with NASA in 1982: the Conestoga 1 of Space Services Inc. The rocket was constructed from a leftover Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) from the U.S Navy, showing the tight working relationship between the government and commercial firms. This launch was a watershed moment for commercial space pioneers and was followed by the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act which called on NASA to look for commercial firms to assist them in their launches to lower costs. Commercial space vehicles suddenly had new life breathed into them, although some hindrances still existed, including a stipulation that all commercial vehicles must use Federal launch pads. There is a long history of the Federal government encouraging private industries to assist them in joint launches to space to reduce operating costs, while at the same time tying their hands on what they were allowed to do on their own. Until 1984, all private companies were required to use the Space Shuttle as their launch vessel, ensuring the continued monopoly that the government maintained on space vehicles.
SpaceX was able to produce the Falcon-9 rocket for just over $400 million while an estimate for a NASA project of the same size would have cost well over $4 billion.
From 1984 on, private companies produced their own launch vehicles and the momentum has only increased as the Space Shuttle itself was retired in 2011, which marked the official death of the government-subsidized vehicle and in so doing freed up opportunities for commercial space craft to make their mark on history now that they were free to act without the government’s direct involvement. Just one year later, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully delivered cargo to the International Space Station. This marked the beginning of dozens of private commercial flights to the ISS. Elon Musk, emboldened by his venture to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) laid out an ambitious plan to reach the surface of Mars, paving the way for eventual human settlement. His long-term aspirations are to shuttle enough supplies and people to the Red Giant to eventually construct a self-sufficient human colony, although he admits this will take thousands of launches and hundreds of billions of dollars. The main argument for private space flight is that these companies can do the difficult work of national governments for much less money. SpaceX was able to produce the Falcon-9 rocket for just over $400 million while an estimate for a NASA project of the same size would have cost well over $4 billion. This highlights the difference between the costs of bureaucratic-mandated space programs and that of private enterprise. NASA has been suffering from years of budget cuts that have crippled their capabilities to do any space exploration, most notably in the permanent grounding of their fleet of Space Shuttles.
SpaceX Falcon-9 on launchpad before the first commercial mission to resupply the ISS.
The space fever is not limited to SpaceX, either. Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos has long had his own pet aeronautics project, Blue Origin. This company is dedicated to manufacturing and deploying outer space vehicles, and NASA has looked favorably upon this. NASA has even reached out to Bezos on his own personal goal of returning humans to the moon in the near future. Bezos stated the moon presents an opportunity for humans to outsource much of their heavy industry that has taken such a toll on the Earth. For example, the possibility of constructing mining apparatuses on the lunar polar regions could be used to extract rare earth elements such as Helium-3, which is key for fusion reactions that produce heat and energy. Also of note is that the Moon has ice, around 600 million tons of it in its North Pole alone according to estimates. This is crucial because ice yields Hydrogen and Oxygen, vital components of rocket fuel. If mined at a large enough rate, the Moon could become a refueling station for rockets on their way back to Earth. Now, there is a possible conflict on the horizon when it comes to colonizing the Moon, Mars, or any place that humans can reach. Who owns the moon? Take for example, Moon Express, which is a private company that the U.S government specially authorized to conduct mining operations on the Moon. It is only a matter of time until they encounter a legal dispute with an international company claiming the same rights.
Jeff Bezos is one of many billionaires to jump in on the new space race
In the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, nations around the world committed to de-weaponizing space, prohibiting military weapons systems from being deployed in orbit by any nation. Also included in this treaty was the stipulation that no one nation would ever lay claim to any celestial body found in outer space. This was meant to prevent a colonial scramble for moons and planets which would inevitably give way to armed conflict. However, between the fine lines of this treaty lie glaring loopholes. If it is not the United States that claims the Moon, who is to prevent a private American aeronautics company from doing so? Take the SPACE Act of 2015, which expressly endows American citizens with the right to freely exploit resources they find in space, (although not biological life). Although the issue of private companies claiming sovereignty over the Moon has not arisen as of yet, there is ever-increasing interest among billionaires to make the historic trip to the stars and beyond.
Science fiction has imagined humans colonizing planets devoid of Oxygen by constructing artificial environments to allow us to work and labor on the surface with ease.
There are many factors which stand in the way of humanity achieving its goals for space exploration and colonization of the moon. The looming concern is cost. Space-faring rockets cost well into the hundreds of millions of dollars and rocket fuel itself is expensive, although it has been shown that private space companies are capable of reducing the overall financial burden compared to national space agencies. Another hindrance is the limited fuel supply that rockets can stock up on once they depart for space, which limits their mission duration as they must return to the Earth for a resupply. However, with the initiative to place mining structures on the moon to extract vital components of rocket fuel, this would allow for rockets to land and refuel before jettisoning off for another leg of their journey. Consequently, the range of human space flight has the potential to increase by leaps and bounds as fuel and cost expenses become less burdensome. Humanity also has much to learn about the effects of zero-gravity on the human body, and this must be calculated into any mission designed to be long-term, the course of months to years. Science fiction has imagined humans colonizing planets devoid of Oxygen by constructing artificial environments to allow us to work and labor on the surface with ease. However, according to eccentric billionaires, this concept won’t remain fiction forever, as they press on ahead laying the groundwork for future generations to build from.
Between SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin’s plans to colonize planets, there is a real possibility of congesting space traffic as dozens of rockets will be jamming interstellar lanes. While there is much progress to be made before these plans become realities, one cannot doubt that the future that lies ahead for humankind will take us to the stars, if not with the NASA weakened by budget cuts, then by private enterprise and our own limitless ambitions.