On April 8, SpaceX landed a rocket on a floating barge. The private company’s mission control room burst into celebration, the jubilation hinting at the significance of the achievement. Incremental, yes, but also a bellwether: space is open for business.
The next day, scientists, investors, and academics met at MIT Sloan for the New Space Age Conference, an event to showcase and discuss the private space industry. Here are some highlights.
Regular, reliable rocket launches are a prerequisite for industry growth.
“There has never been a better time to raise capital if you’re in the commercialization of space. On the other hand, until we see some exits, I think you’re going to see a slowdown,” said Richard Rocket, co-founder and CEO of New Space Global, a research and analysis firm tracking the space industry.
For all of the SpaceX landing’s significance, Rocket said there needs to be more investment in launch companies, and not just from billionaires like SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos. Otherwise, the need to get people and projects into space may outpace the number of launches.
“I don’t think there should be more private investment in small sat[ellite] companies until launch rates go up,” Rocket said.
Boeing is creating new composite materials for the next wave of space exploration.
While startups like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic grab headlines, traditional aerospace industry players are very much in the new space race. Boeing, for example, is working with NASA to build a composite cryogenic fuel tank that will reduce the weight and cost of tanks on space vehicles.
That means longer space trips at a lower cost, said Boeing’s Naveed Hussain.
“The cost to access space is still a factor,” Hussain said. “It’s a huge factor in terms of closing the business case in terms of a lot of things [conference attendees are working on]. We’ve still got to get it into space.”
While the tank is under development, Hussain said Boeing is focused on making it “space-qualified” using proprietary materials that will not suffer even the smallest crack. Those materials could have many uses in space, he said.
“You can kind of do anything with this,” he said. “This could be your next vehicle.”
We’re going to colonize Mars ... maybe. But we might have to live in caves.
“The first settlements on Mars are going to be underground,” said Keegan Kirkpatrick, team lead at RedWorks, a design team that participated in NASA’s challenge to design a 3-D printed Mars habitat.
Kirkpatrick, who joined a panel discussion about colonizing Mars, said evidence of large lava tubes and underground caves on Mars suggests valley-sized spaces that would be easier to colonize than the planet’s barren and inhospitable surface.
The science fiction-inspired conversation included analysis of the in-space logistics of interplanetary transit, disagreement about who the first colonists should be, and arguments for and against terraforming, the modification of a planet to make it habitable.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to change ourselves than it would be to change an entire planet?” Andrew Owens, a PhD student and NASA space technology research fellow at MIT, asked.
We’re going to mine asteroids.
If we’re going to build on Mars, we’re going to need a new supply chain. How do you get everything a colony needs — water, building materials, fuel — from Earth to Mars? What if it didn’t have to come from Earth?
That’s the proposition behind Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company. When President Barack Obama signed a bill last November granting property rights to asteroids, asteroid mining became a more viable business plan. Planetary Resources vice president Akshay Patel said the company sees the 10,000 near-Earth asteroids as “low-hanging fruit” for the extraction of industrial metals and rare earth metals.
To get there, Planetary Resources is working backward, developing the in-house software, sensors, propulsion, and laser communications that may be needed to approach and analyze asteroids.
Short-term, the company’s business proposition could include the observation of resources on earth from a constellation of the company’s Arkyd 100 satellites. Long-term, the goal is to use materials from pulverized meteorites to 3-D print structures in space and create fuel depots for spacecraft.
“The goal is to get off-planet, and having the resources to do that,” Patel said.
Space lacks diversity.
Human diversity, anyway. Only 553 people have ever been to space, a “depressingly low” number to Virgin Galactic vice president of special projects Will Pomerantz. Of those people, 90 percent are men. The group is overwhelmingly from the United States with a good-sized contingent from Russia. Age and economic background are homogenous. And everyone was “a perfect physical specimen” when they went to space, Pomerantz said.
Virgin Galactic is planning to diversify those numbers, at a cost of about $250,000 a ticket. The space tourism company plans to offer suborbital trips into space in which customers will be able to float freely around a spaceship cabin and look back at the curvature of Earth. While the cost will restrict most flights to the wealthy at first, Pomerantz said holders of the first 700 tickets come from 50 different nations and reflect a wide range of ages and physical health.
“I’m only exaggerating a very, very little bit when I say if you’re healthy enough to ride a roller coaster, you’re healthy enough to go into space,” he said.