Private Enterprise Will Deliver Our Future In Space

Wreckage from Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo in the Mojave desert following the crash on 31 October 2014.  Courtesy: CNN

Wreckage from Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in the Mojave desert following the crash on 31 October 2014. Courtesy: CNN

Tragedy struck billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s space business last month with the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane leaving one pilot dead and another injured.

This was the second space disaster in less than a week to hit the private sector space industry following the explosion, shortly after blast off, of the Antares space station resupply rocket launched by US company Orbital Sciences Corp. just three days earlier, on Tuesday 28 October 2014.

These events have prompted predictable questions about the risks of space travel, the huge financial costs involved and the role of private enterprise in space.

Virgin Galactic faces a major investigation from US safety authorities following the accident which may yet spell the end of Branson’s dream of taking tourists to the very edge of space although Branson himself promises to find out what went wrong and to learn from the lessons and then to continue.

Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft is based on technology that won a $10m competition back in 2004. The competition, known as the X-Prize, had challenged teams from around the world to build a reliable, reusable, privately financed, manned spaceship capable of carrying three people to an altitude of 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface and to do that twice within two weeks.

Mojave Aerospace Ventures won the X-Prize back in 2004 with two successful launches of their SpaceShipOne and subsequently entered an arrangement with Branson to develop a spacecraft for Virgin Galactic. However, the tragic set back to Branson’s high profile plans is arguably less significant to the future of privately funded space exploration than critics may think.

Explosion of th Antares space station resupply rocket on 28 October 2014. Courtesy: NASA

Explosion of the Antares space station resupply rocket on 28 October 2014. Courtesy: NASA

Reliance

Orbital Sciences Corp. and Virgin Galactic are just two of many businesses in the growing private enterprise space market. NASA has awarded contracts to two other companies, aerospace establishment giant Boeing and rocket start-up Space-X, to provide taxi services to take astronauts up to the space station. Each uses different rocket designs and the two together provide an insurance against the failure of any one system.

America’s manned spaceflight programme has been grounded since the retirement of the space shuttle with the superpower that put men on the Moon becoming dependent on archaic Russian rocket technology that dates back to the dawn of the space age to get its astronauts into orbit

When America finally resumes launching its own astronauts later this decade, they will be carried aloft aboard privately built, privately financed and privately operated spacecraft. The benefits of private enterprise, with its access to capital, determination to solve technical challenges and a competitive nature that spawns a variety of different approaches, means that America need never again be reliant on one single, ageing, flawed system.

Space is difficult, dangerous and hugely expensive. We push our technologies to the very limits just to escape the chains of our home planet’s gravity. Some think that the technical challenges are just too great, that space exploration will prove too risky and that the huge costs can never be justified.

Our greatest innovation

But private enterprise will deliver space technology faster and cheaper than state-backed players such as NASA, and the space agencies of Europe, Russia and Japan. Just look at the development of aviation in the twentieth century and how the private sector has delivered a safe and cheap global air transport system. A powerful combination of technology and economics will deliver the same for space travel. That is the promise of private enterprise in space.

There is no doubt that we shall need all our technologies, and many that do not even exist at the moment, as humankind continues its long, slow but inevitable climb out of this cradle we call Earth. There is also no doubt that the economic costs of this great enterprise, just like the costs of all other great and worthwhile enterprises throughout history, will be vast. Sadly, it is inevitable too that the human toll will grow and that there will be more deaths along the way.

Those involved in space exploration are driven by a shared belief that the stars are our destiny, that exploring space is part of what it means to be human and that, ultimately, this is about the future of our species; that we do this not because we can, nor because we should, nor because we must… That we do this because we are human.

And when, as inevitably we shall, humanity does eventually begin to expand out across the cosmos, it seems certain that it will be built on the sacrifice of many brave pioneers, driven by technologies that may not yet exist, and powered by one of our greatest and most enabling innovations: capitalism.

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