On October 4th, 1957, the trajectory of our future was changed forever when the U.S.S.R. successfully launched the satellite Sputnik into Earth’s atmosphere, signaling the dawn of a new era for humanity. Twelve years after the U.S.S.R. began the Cold War-era “space race”, the USA won the race by successfully landing astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the Moon.
Now, more than fifty years since the lunar landing, we have seen advancements in space exploration and rocket technology, scores of successful launches and earth-orbit manned missions, and increases in private investment in the space industry through the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin in a race to delve deeper into the cosmos. While there seems to be no lack of innovation in the space exploration industry today, Tim Chrisman, the founder and director of Foundation For The Future, says the industry’s current technology bottlenecks could be remedied by increasing investment.
“We are seventy years removed from Apollo and have had people living in space continuously for 20 years [aboard the International Space Station],” says Chrisman, “but it will take four months…at best…to fix a broken power supply in NASA’s next-generation crew capsule.”
The capsule, Orion, is designed to carry the next round of astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024 as part of NASA’s Artemis program. The Artemis I mission is still scheduled for late 2021 to verify the efficacy of Orion’s capabilities on manned missions, but with one of Orion’s eight critical power and data units (PDUs) recorded to have failed, engineers at NASA and Lockheed Martin are aware that any additional delays could prolong the timeline of the Artemis program.
To many, four months may sound a reasonable timeframe to repair a crucial component necessary for the safety of astronauts in space travel. Fifty years ago, the crew of Apollo 13 narrowly survived disaster when their vessel suffered an explosion that nearly stranded the three astronauts hundreds of thousands of miles from home. Thankfully, a combination of quick thinking and luck saw them back home in four days. For Chrisman, however, this lag time should be a thing of the past.
“It is time we stop accepting this as normal,” says Chrisman. “It takes three months for a single person to hand make a Bentley Mulsanne. We change this old way by investing more in space access, not trying to fix the bespoke access solution we have now. We invest in making the trip to space as common as transcontinental flights.”
Within NASA, the agency’s Technology Transfer Program has allowed private investors, entrepreneurs, and companies to gain the rights to NASA-developed technology. The program’s focus is on bringing technology developed for manned space missions back down to earth, with notable examples in TEMPUR foam mattresses, freeze-dried foods, and the Bowflex exercise system. The program allows NASA access to royalties off their patented technologies, bringing in extra cash to further develop and refine more technologies.
Outside NASA’s walls, companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX have gone on to raise roughly $20M and $5.5B respectively. The broad gap between the two shows a significant focus on Musk’s SpaceX as a developer of autonomous and sustainable space exploration technologies such as the Falcon 9 re-launchable rocket. It also shows that the space exploration industry is not only ready for large-scale investment; it desperately craves it, even in the midst of a global pandemic.
“Space is invigorating,” said Chrisman. “It fills people with inspiration and challenges us to find innovative ways to use what we have and discover new ways of living, conserving and thinking about Earth. As we combat a deadly pandemic together around the world, it may be easy to dismiss the future of space exploration as an argument for another day. But…the solution to the next global health event may be spinning just out of our orbit. We must continue to invest in allowing ourselves to reach beyond the limits of our planet. It could very well be the key to solving many of the world’s current problems.”