(EFE) – Having amassed fortunes measured in millions of dollars, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson “have embraced their true passion” of space exploration, which the United States government is beginning to distance itself from.
“The private sector wants to make space more accessible, to go beyond where NASA has been before,” said journalist and author Christian Davenport when talking about the American space agency in an interview.
Davenport, who covers the space and defense industries for The Washington Post newspaper, is also the author of the book Space Barons, for which he interviewed Bezos, the founder of Amazon; Musk, the creator of Tesla and PayPal; and Branson, the head of Virgin.
The title Space Barons harks back to the railroad barons of the 19th century who took advantage of support from the federal government, which offered land and provided military protection, to expand their private railroad networks.
More exploration, less investment
“Space travel is still really expensive,” mentioned Christian Davenport. “The private sector represents a change in how this exploration is done [to make it affordable to the public].”
Since the human adventure of space exploration began in the mid-1950s, it has carried a high cost, which in the case of the United States up to now has been paid by the government.
The space programs of the US and its competitors use booster rockets to reach the exosphere. As these use segments that fall into the sea or remain floating in space once they’ve propelled the spacecraft into its orbit or trajectory, they can’t be reused.
The exception to this has been the space shuttle program that NASA inaugurated in 1981 and terminated in 2011, after 135 missions that contributed to the construction of the International Space Station (ISS), a 100-billion-dollar project involving 15 countries.
However, NASA has announced that it will stop taking part in the ISS by 2024.
In the face of this “retreat” by the American space agency, alternatives from the private sector have presented themselves.
Both are working at different speeds on developing booster rockets that can be recovered for multiple uses, which according to the entrepreneurs will reduce costs and enable businesses such as “space tourism”.
Christian Davenport explained that each space baron’s long-term vision is different, which guides the technology developed by their companies.
“As for the Moon, we now know that there’s water in the form of ice at its south pole,” he continued. “This is hydrogen and oxygen that they could use as fuel for launching other vehicles.”
Davenport pointed out that these entrepreneurs are looking at things over hundreds of years, and see the future of humanity as one of limited resources and a growing population: “Musk thinks in terms of a catastrophe in which ‘Plan B’ is the development of new spacecraft and the colonization of Mars,” he said.
“Branson’s approach is the opportunity to travel beyond the atmosphere, which some consider entertainment for the rich. Another way of looking at it is the opportunity to observe Earth from afar, to see how paper-thin our atmosphere is, to see that we’re all together on this planet,” he added.
In the case of Bezos, ‘Plan B’ is humanity taking care of our planet rather than colonizing other worlds.
Underregulated so far
Over more than six decades since a human artifact orbited Earth for the first time, American space exploration, funded and regulated by the government, “has brought benefits for whole of humanity,” said Davenport.
Now “participation of the private sector in space exploration involves matters that will require legislation, such as people’s safety,” he added.
To this end, Davenport emphasized that, “space tourism has very little regulation, both for the protection of people and of property. That’s why test missions have been held over the sea until now.”
The author recalled that only 560 people have traveled into space beyond Earth’s atmosphere since April 1961, when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed the first manned space mission.
“There’s potential in the development of transport,” said Davenport. “A flight from New York to Madrid, which now takes six hours, could be completed in one hour with a vehicle that leaves the atmosphere and reenters it.”
Elon Musk shows off the new Starship from SpaceX. Find out more here