New horizons in private space exploration

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Without peering so far into the future that one might fear the basic concept of entropy, it is clear humanity’s ultimate potential can only be achieved amongst the stars. One day the sun will expand and engulf all of the inner planets. Humans must eventually settle beyond Earth or cease to be.

It is only in the last 50 years that reasonable means of conquering space have appeared. Surely there were dreamers long ago determined to sail the star ocean, but without modern rocket science and computer systems the dream was an enterprise of mere fancy. Rockets were initially, and still are, used as weapons. Today, fear and strife limits advances in space technology. Federal spending on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 2013 accounted for 0.5 percent of the U.S. national budget, while defense costs remained at a bloated 17.7 percent. The highest level of funding NASA ever received was 4.4 percent in 1966 while the Apollo program was actively placing men on the moon.

In recent years, private companies have set their sights on outer space. From the VA-based tourism company Space Adventures, which has assisted seven millionaires in leaving the atmosphere since its inception, to the serious expansion minded corporations such as Boeing, Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceX (short for “space exploration”), private corporations have become more involved in the field every year. Owned by Elon Musk, an early investor in PayPal and CEO of Tesla Motors, SpaceX has launched several resupply missions to the International Space Station using their privately developed launch vehicles, the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9. Bigelow has developed inflatable habitat modules for the ISS which are planned for launch on a Falcon 9 rocket during SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Mission 8, sometime late summer to early fall 2015.

Meanwhile, the company Planetary Resources is developing plans to exploit the asteroids tumbling about the solar system for their wealth of metals and minerals, as well as water, which presently costs about $23,000 per pound to launch from earth. HR 5063, known as the Asteroid Act, is a bill currently being reviewed by the House subcommittee on space. It seeks to “promote the right of United States commercial entities to explore and utilize resources from asteroids in outer space, in accordance with the existing international obligations of the United States.” It assures “property rights,” “freedom from harmful interference” and “relief from harmful interference” for any commercial entity utilizing such resources.

Perhaps in the future, human expansion will not fall in line with national governments. Given the lack of federal funding which also indicates lack of interest, the stars are the domain of those with the money to seek them out. The legislation against “harmful interference” within HR 5063 seems to indicate that competition is expected in this expansion, giving property rights to whoever first lays claim, setting the scene for a new gold rush.

For now, in these early stages of private space endeavors, the future looks bright. SpaceX has been indicating its desires to colonize Mars for some time now, claiming the feat might be accomplished in the 2020s, while NASA plans such a mission for 2035. I am proud in believing that sometime during my lifetime, humanity will create the necessary infrastructure to support interplanetary civilization and perhaps establish the first extraterrestrial colony. While interstellar travel is well beyond the scope of modern science, advances are spurred on by new challenges. With each step into space, the next comes into view. Surely humanity is capable of escaping our homeworld, and these attempts will make for quite a spectator sport in the coming decades.