Since the demise of the Apollo Program, government-funded space exploration has been devastated by deep budget cuts and an increasingly disinterested public. NASA and its ilk have long ceased pushing the boundaries of the unknown and instead serve only to prod the already-known. We as humans, it seems, no longer have a frontier to conquer.
However, a subtle but very important shift is occurring in the aerospace industry – it’s becoming privatized. On May 31, the SpaceX capsule, code-named Dragon, successfully landed in the Pacific Ocean, signifying the completion of the world’s very first private delivery of supplies to the International Space Station. Although the mission itself received little mainstream media attention, its significance shouldn’t be lost on those paying close attention.
Another recent news-maker, which was received with understandable skepticism, came from the startup Planetary Resources, which recently held a press conference declaring their intent to build a business model around mining asteroids for precious materials and water. It sounds much like science fiction, but the company is backed by some very serious investors, and plans to begin their efforts by launching a series of satellite telescopes to look for material-rich objects.
The announcement by Planetary Resources is another signal that the nature of space exploration is changing. Much of the expense in anything involving space travel is in getting the ship, crew, and cargo into orbit. It takes thousands of dollars to put a single pound into orbit. If resource exploitation in outer space can be done cheaply, then the cost of space exploration will drop considerably, possibly leading to long-duration missions to Mars, or even lunar colonization efforts within the next few decades.
Of course, all of this will take time. But, with world governments becoming increasingly unwilling to undertake efforts to explore space, it is heartening to see that private industry is willing and able to do what our governments will not.
Why do we care?
Although there are many different reasons why space exploration is critically important to our future, perhaps the most obvious is the economy. In order to understand the value of space exploration you need only look back to the Apollo Program. When President Kennedy announced that America would land on the moon by the end of the 1960s, no one could have anticipated the benefits and spin-offs which would come from the program itself. It inspired an entire generation of scientists and engineers, and gave rise to an entirely new industry.
Historically, concentrated exploration efforts have produced massive jolts of technological and cultural progress that echoes across entire generations of humanity. The discovery and colonization of the New World infused new blood into Europe’s economy and paved the way for the industrial revolution. There is no reason why the colonization of mars or the moon won’t have the same effect. As human beings, it is in our nature to explore. We need a frontier. Space is that frontier.