Why now is the most exciting time in space in 50 years

The essential parts of an economy are intertwined by their very nature. There’s no point in having a food market if there are no farmers to supply food. But there’s no point in growing food until there are markets where you can sell it. And what is the right moment to go into the “food transportation” business, carting the freshly harvested produce from the field to the store? We’ve seen this in our own era: What was the point in creating high-speed internet service if there was no content online that required such speeds? Why bother creating YouTube if no one has the bandwidth to watch and upload videos easily?

This is exactly the moment we’re in with human space travel. Why bother creating the technology to launch people into space when there’s nowhere in particular to go? But why create destinations in space when there’s no affordable way to get to them?

Yet it’s precisely because of this moment that now is the most exciting time in space in 50 years—stretching back to the moment when we were landing on the Moon.

What does it cost to put a single person into orbit? The Russians have been charging NASA $80 million, or more, to send a single U.S. astronaut to the space station, since we sent our space shuttles to museums. No company can afford to spend $80 million to send a single person to space. There’s no work to be done in space—no way to make money— that would justify that. But what if you could send a person to space for $1 million? $250,000? $100,000? Companies spend that kind of money all the time to move staff around the world, and to equip them for research, for manufacturing, for production. That’s also a 99% reduction in the price of launching a person.

That’s the price Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are aiming for—not immediately, but in the next decade.

Where will SpaceX and Blue Origin be delivering space travelers? The space station is fully staffed with six people, three on the Russian side, three on the American side. Robert Bigelow is ready to solve that problem. He has been for years. Bigelow is a Las Vegas real-estate and low-cost-hotel entrepreneur, and although he has no formal space or engineering training, he became obsessed with the idea of providing in space what he has provided on Earth: living and working space for rent.

In 1999, he founded Bigelow Aerospace and licensed out a nascent technology from NASA itself: Space habitats that are made of superstrong high-tech fabrics that can be launched folded up and then expanded to full size once in space. What so captivated Bigelow was a simple idea: With hard-sided space modules—like those used to make the International Space Station—you can never have a space that is bigger across than the rocket that launched it. That has given space stations a cramped air, from Skylab onward. The modules of the space station are 14 feet in diameter, which quickly gets tighter when you start mounting equipment racks on the walls.

The advantages of expandable space habitats are dramatic. The design of Bigelow’s basic orbiting space module—the company calls it the B330—is 22 feet across, but compressed for launch, it fits easily on existing rockets. The pressurized volume of the entire space station, after 19 years of assembly, is 915 cubic meters. It took 41 space shuttle flights to put the hardware into orbit to assemble it. Three Bigelow B330s—each one 330 cubic meters inside—would get you 990 cubic feet of working space.

Three launches to a space bigger than the ISS.

Bigelow has a factory in Las Vegas with 365,000 square feet of manufacturing space ready to make B330s. Bigelow—who has put his operations on hold during the pandemic—has been waiting (impatiently) for his fellow entrepreneurs, Musk and Bezos, to get their transportation system going—he’s ready to provide spec real estate to NASA, to some nation that wants its own space station (Japan? Israel? France?), to a pharmaceutical or technology company that wants to figure out zero-gravity manufacturing, to a hospitality company that wants to offer an orbital hotel. Transportation hub, laboratory, observatory, resort—that’s the beauty of the B330. Bigelow will build to suit.

Although space tourism gets a lot of media attention, a robust human space economy will be built on doing things in space that can’t be done practically on Earth but that benefit life on Earth. One of the earliest tests of manufacturing in space, for instance, involves a California company called Made in Space making a kind of optical fiber, in a self-contained module on the space station, that can be made in microgravity with a purity that’s not possible on Earth. The space-made fiber could increase the speed of data transmission back on Earth by many times—and it’s exactly the kind of lightweight, high-value product that could make sense to manufacture in orbit and then transport back to Earth.

What will sustain interest and innovation in space isn’t a government program or even a half-dozen government programs. What will sustain interest and vibrancy in space is a real, self-sustaining space economy. “I believe that we are sitting on the edge of a golden age of space exploration. Right on the edge,” says Bezos. “The thing that I would be most proud of, when I’m 80 years old, is if Blue Origin can lower the cost of access to space by such a large amount that there can be a dynamic, entrepreneurial explosion in space—just as we’ve seen over the last 20 years on the internet.”

Bezos has said he expects to refine Blue Origin’s ultimate operations enough that there will be regularly scheduled launches twice a week—the Monday and Thursday Blue Origin flights to orbit. That would give Blue alone 100 launches a year. In the five years from 2014 through 2019, the entire world averaged 95 launches a year—including both satellite and crewed launches.

There’s nowhere near the demand right now for a single company to double the launch capacity of the world—but that’s at the current prices. Who knows what people will imagine doing, who knows what people will be able to do, when the price comes down 90%, or 99%?

That’s why this is the most exciting moment in space travel in 50 years. Because for the first time it’s really possible to imagine that space travel will begin to be mastered in the way that, for instance, passenger jet travel has been. There’s nothing easy about sending a jet with 250 people on it from New York City to London, but for a passenger paying $300 for the trip, all the challenging parts, all the complexity, all the elaborate supporting infrastructure, is invisible. For the first time ever, if you want to go to space, ten years from now, it’s quite likely you’ll be able to.

It’s the most exciting moment in space travel in 50 years because if you want to help create this new space age, you can join up right now and do it. Creating the space infrastructure—like creating the interstate highway system, or the air traffic control system, or the internet—will take thousands and thousands of people, and those will be good jobs, demanding, challenging, gratifying.

Imagine being given the chance to work with Henry Ford on the Model T in the 1910s. Or to join Google as it was getting started in 2000. That’s the moment we’re in with space right now.

This is an excerpt from One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon, the New York Times best-selling book by Fast Company contributor Charles Fishman. The book comes out in paperback today, with an all-new concluding chapter titled, “The Most Exciting Time in Space in 50 Years,” from which this is excerpted. Last summer, Fishman wrote 50 stories for Fast Company about what it took to get us to the Moon in the 1960s, collected here.

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