With plans to fly two private citizens around the moon in 2018, what more can we look forward to when we dream about tomorrow?
“Space exploration is a force of nature unto itself that no other force in society can rival.” That’s Neil deGrasse Tyson, renown astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium, discussing the wholesale benefits of space exploration and, more specifically, its innate ability to galvanise a generation.
Much of that inspiration and pioneering spirit stemmed from NASA throughout the 1960s, when John F. Kennedy vowed to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Such a wildly ambitious pledge to the American people (and indeed the world) launched the Apollo program in ‘61, before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history by becoming the first humans to set foot on another celestial body eight years later.
JFK’s promise had been fulfilled. NASA, then considered the enablers of tomorrow, had successfully pipped the Soviet’s at the post to win the Space Race. History tells us that that trailblazing streak continued through until 1972, when Apollo 17 shipped Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans, and Harrison Schmitt towards our rocky neighbour for a three-day expedition. To this day, Apollo’s last hurrah stands as the last manned mission beyond Earth’s orbit, and though there have been plenty of groundbreaking developments in the intervening years since (see: Hubble Telescope, the International Space Station), the proposition of human spaceflight — specifically to other planets in our solar system and beyond — has fallen far down NASA’s list of priorities.
Political red tape and a shrinking budget have contributed to the overall decline in interest in manned spaceflight, but since 2002, private companies like SpaceShipOne and SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) have shown that spaceflight doesn’t always have to be a government-directed activity. And so, the fledgling space tourism industry was born.
Commercial spaceflight is, of course, still in its infancy. Between 2001 and 2009, the US-based Space Adventures shipped seven space tourists to the International Space Station, when the going rate for a seat aboard the Soyuz vessel was $20–40 million (£15.4m-£35m). Naturally, this starry escape was reserved for the one percent of the one percent, but Russia pumped the brakes on its orbital space tourism by 2010, citing an increase in the ISS crew size and rising costs.
Meanwhile, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic set its target a little closer to home — just above the Kármán line, to be specific, where Earth’s upper atmosphere kisses the frontier of space. For all its headline-worthy ambition, though, Galactic has been beset with development woes, leading to those fabled suborbital spaceflights being postponed indefinitely.
But if there’s one company that embodies the pioneering spirit of NASA, it’s SpaceX. Headed up by renown entrepreneur and all-around go-getter Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla, SolarCity), the company was founded on the belief that space transport needn’t be exclusive to government-backed schemes, and that the world’s aerospace giants ought to adopt a more a democratic view of the heavens above us. SpaceX’s end-goal spans further still — 33.9 million miles, to be exact, where Musk and his team hope to plant a flag on Mars.
It’s the stuff of science fiction — a bustling, self-sufficient colony aboard the Red Planet, one that is able to pen a new chapter in humanity’s storied history, is enough to leave space enthusiasts giddy with excitement, but there’s plenty of science fact underpinning this most ambitious of projects.
Elon Musk has been a strong proponent of space travel for years, and hopes to offset the “risk of human extinction” by “making life multiplanetary.” Well, we did say he was a go-getter.
2030 is the current target for SpaceX’s Mars colony, and since 2011, the company has been taking big, big strides towards achieving that goal. The silver bullet in SpaceX’s arsenal is, without question, its reusable launch system technology, which greatly reduces the cost of shipping a vessel into orbit. Because make no mistake, space travel is expensive.
ULA’s Atlas V rocket, for instance, can launch 8123 kg for $164 Million, a figure that works out at around $20,000 (£15,420) per kg. For the sake of perspective, the average adult male weighs around 62 kg. SpaceX, by comparison, is able to shoulder 53,000 kg for $90 Million, or $1700 (£1,300) per kg using its Falcon Heavy.
It’s this vessel that will help spearhead the company’s ambitions towards Mars. Upon reaching space, the Heavy’s propellant booster would detach, allowing the spacecraft to remain locked in orbit while its booster circles back to Earth — Cape Canaveral, to be specific — where it would dock, refuel, and launch back towards the stars in order to transfer the extra fuel needed to reach our distant neighbour. Solar arrays would then deploy, lending the spacecraft the ability to harness the blistering energy of the sun on its onward journey towards the Red Planet.
Granted, all of this is still relatively far away, but in 2018, SpaceX plans to launch two unnamed citizens on a private mission around the moon. It’s known as the Space X Lunar Tourism Mission, and assuming everything goes according to plan, it could fall around the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 flight — how very apropos — which flew astronauts around the moon for the first time in 1968.
For the space tourism industry, it’s another important domino to fall, one which could set off a chain of events leading to a more democratic view of space. Think of how aeroplane travel was strictly limited to society’s well-to-do during its formative years, before advancements in technology and budget airlines ushered in a new era of egalitarian travel.
As SpaceX’s mission goal states: “Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration.” And isn’t that exciting?