I recently read an article that suggested humanity’s efforts to explore space are quietly being abandoned. The idea was triggered by the recent transport of the space shuttle Discovery to Washington DC to become a museum display. The argument goes that, while surveys show citizens still want and expect to see a future that includes Star Trek-like space travel, governments are quietly cutting funds and letting the dream die.
While there’s some truth to that, it ignores the way the private sector has been stepping up to the plate, and it’s been doing so in a big way lately. We’ve all heard about Richard Branson’s plans with Virgin Galactic to take millionaire thrill-seekers like Ashton Kutcher to the edge of space, and you may have dismissed it as little more than a carnival stunt. But space tourism is a perfectly valid way to fund other projects, and I’m sure Branson won’t be content with joyrides alone.
Even more immediately promising is PayPal co-founder Elon Musk’s company Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). NASA has just given the go-ahead for SpaceX to launch a test cargo mission to the International Space Station on April 30th. The mission calls for SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon space capsule, launched by their Falcon 9 rocket, to haul a cargo of food and supplies to the station and bring other cargo back to Earth. It will be the first time a private spacecraft has visited the station, but it’s part of a longer contract to supply the ISS for the next few years. The Falcon rockets have performed well so far, and the Dragon capsule is designed to be able to land on the Moon or other planets in years to come.
Then there’s the Google Lunar X PRIZE offering $20 million to the first nongovernment team that can land a robot on the moon capable of traveling a half a mile or so and sending high-definition video back to Earth before the end of 2015. Second prize is $5 million, and other bonuses are available. A reported twenty-six groups are in the running.
And this coming Tuesday April 24th a new space exploration company called Planetary Resources will be unveiled at a press conference. The high profile names associated with the venture include film director James Cameron, Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, X PRIZE founder Peter Diamandis, former NASA mission manager Chris Lewicki, and politician Ross Perot's son, among others. The project to be announced Tuesday is promised to involve a new industry that will overlay space exploration and natural resources. Industry watchers believe it will be a plan to mine asteroids.
So maybe governments are losing some of their enthusiasm, but private entrepreneurs are stepping forward to pick up the slack and, to me, that signals that the future of space exploration is still bright!