This past Sunday a fairly momentous event happened without much fanfare among the general public. It was the successful splashdown of the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Dragon spacecraft after a supply mission to the International Space Station—the very first such mission by a craft produced and launched by a private company. This was important to NASA and the International Space Station program in general because it assures the station can continue without the American space shuttles, now retired. The Dragon craft is also capable of bringing back a lot more in the way of research materials than the conventional Russian spacecraft that have been going back and forth to the ISS since the last shuttle flight, and especially refrigerated materials. But this mission was much more important as a symbol: a sign that private industry can pick up where government-funded organizations like NASA leave off in the realm of space exploration.

Why does that matter?

I could list dozens of reasons I think humanity needs to venture out into space—from ecological relief, to easing population pressure, to safeguarding Life from possible extinction by cosmic collision. Yet the truth is, the real motivator that will ensure us a lasting presence in space is the same as it has always been for exploration: wealth. Money. Commerce. Call it what you will. Columbus’s voyages might have been funded by government (royalty) but his explorations were about finding cheaper ways to access the riches of the Orient. Same with the first expeditions to Canada, and then the exploration deeper into the continent was all about the fur trade. The story was the same for Africa and South America, and it will be the same for the Moon and Mars and the asteroid belt. When the journeys can be made to provide a desirable financial return they’ll happen. For that reason my bet is that we’ll have a better-established presence in the asteroid belt before we have colonies of any size on Mars (unless someone discovers oil there!)

What does this mean for the future? Great opportunities for companies that deal in mining technology, pharmaceutical research (thanks to zero-gravity), solar energy, and robotic systems, among many other fields.

And maybe more science fiction stories with former hard rock miners and lab-coated technicians, and fewer hot shot ex-military pilots.


In the decade that saw men first land on the moon author Arthur C. Clarke envisioned a manned mission to Jupiter in the year 2001 (Saturn in the book), and probably most of us thought that was reasonable. Eleven years past that date we’re no longer capable of going to the moon and a long way from being able to send humans to Mars. Sure, we’ve got an International Space Station crewed around the clock, but that’s practically in our backyard, and there’s no Pan Am space clipper service to take tourists for a visit.

Still, there are some hopeful signs. Some believe that private industry holds the greatest promise for space exploration and exploitation. I’ve written here about some of the current endeavours before, and this coming October 7th the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft will take its second trip up to the ISS, this time carrying supplies, after proving it was up to the task last May. A supply run may not seem glamorous, but it’s a good sign for things to come.

Even so, the most encouraging news I saw this month was the assertion that warp drive might not be out of the question after all. Every Star Trek fan knows that it wouldn’t have been possible for the starship Enterprise to visit a different planet every week without being able to travel a whole lot faster than the speed of light. The concept of warp drive was a brilliant (but fictional) solution to Einstein’s edict that nothing can exceed light speed. Then in 1994 a Mexican physicist named Miguel Alcubierre proposed a method for a spacecraft to warp space/time around itself and propel itself at speeds of up to ten times the speed of light. The problem was the energy required: something like the total conversion to energy of a mass the size of Jupiter. Mind boggling! So Alcubierre’s warp drive might not be entirely impossible, but just this side of it.

Fast forward to September of 2012 when Sonny White of NASA’s Johnson Space Centre announced that, with an alteration of the shape of the warp field that Alcubierre had proposed, the energy requirement would be far less—still requiring the complete mass conversion of something the size of the Voyager 1 space probe, but not a gas giant! Further tweaks could improve the situation still more, bringing the concept of warp drive into the realm of plausibility. And NASA scientists are now experimenting to see if they can create a (miniscule) warp field in a lab.

Ceti Alpha Five here we come. (No, wait! Not Ceti Alpha Five!!)