The New Space Age
October 9, 2015 § 1 Comment
As our world moves further and further away from the space fervor of the Cold War, increasing doubt is cast on the ability of government programs such as NASA to propel us into the new space age. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe a government program wasn’t meant to take us where no man has gone before. The government, which (theoretically) serves the people, doesn’t really have any motivation to invest money into space programs. Even though funding NASA is already a tiny fraction of the United States federal budget, the unfortunately common view is: “Why waste money on space when there are problems on Earth?”. Enter space entrepreneurs.
If anything, the recent proliferation of popular interest in space is an indication that this dream hasn’t died yet. Stagnated? Yes. But still breathing. Recent films such as Gravity and The Martian are notable for their portrayal of space as almost mundane. Sure, it’s exciting and full of danger. But both plots hinge on the premise of humans casually exploring our solar system. Well, not very casually. Still, there is no faster-than-light travel, no alien species. It’s a future that isn’t difficult to envision.
Real-life Iron Man, Elon Musk, decided to take matters into his own hands. In the early 2000s, Musk made a substantial part of his initial fortune by merging his online money-transfer service with a similar company, forming PayPal. When the company was sold to eBay, he made $180 million. This he almost immediately invested into creating a new company called SpaceX, with the goal of basically colonizing Mars. Actually the goal is to revolutionize the cost of space travel to propel humanity towards becoming a multi-planetary species. Same thing.
Besides founding SpaceX, he also founded Tesla Motors and SolarCity, all roughly two years apart, with the ambitious aim of creating a sustainable future for humanity. None of these sound like particularly safe investments, so it’s not surprising he almost went broke around 2008. The survival of his companies seemed largely based on luck.
It took SpaceX a while to get off the ground (literally). Not only is starting up a company incredibly difficult, this one also necessitated the building of a functional rocket. The first three attempted launches crashed and burned (also literally). With only enough funds for one more launch, it would either work or the company would have to shut down.
The launch was successful, of course. And it prompted NASA to give the guy a $1.6 billion dollar contract to carry out about 12 launches for them. So far SpaceX has carried out 23. It is one of four organizations to launch spacecraft into orbit and bring them back down, the other three being federal agencies: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (US), the Russian Federal Space Agency (Russia), and the Chinese National Space Administration (China).
So what does the future hold? For Musk, 1 million people on Mars. At first glance the idea is insane. Let me amend that statement. Objectively, the idea is insane. But that’s precisely the reason that private companies are necessary. There is no way that any government would invest significant funds into colonizing Mars. Luckily, there are some crazy, potentially genius, entrepreneurs who are willing do to so. And with the current state of environmental problems on Earth, with the ceaselessly growing population, this may just end up saving our species for a little bit longer.