Space’s next frontier entices upstarts and mainstays
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The US space establishment, led by Nasa, has trained its sights back on the moon — and a budding commercial space industry is champing at the bit to follow.
The space agency earlier this year said it was studying the feasibility of sending astronauts in an orbit around the moon for the first time since the 1970s, with a flight possible in 2019. The mission would bring forward the first manned trip for Orion, a spacecraft designed to eventually reach Mars, and is the latest sign that Nasa sees the moon as both test bed and stepping stone for venturing out into the Solar System.
Less than two weeks later, Elon Musk, boss of SpaceX, declared his own intention to send two space tourists around the moon before the end of next year. And last week, executives of Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ private space company, spoke publicly for the first time about their own lunar dream: a robotic lander that would deliver cargo to the surface, supporting future Nasa missions.
The overlapping government and commercial ambitions point to a symbiosis that could usher in what Mr Bezos describes as a “golden age” of innovation in space. But they also hint at a budding competition that could make the next big leap in space exploration very different from the collaborative, government-led ventures that have characterised space development in the past.
A growing number of space start-ups riding on Nasa coattails hope that the agency’s activities in “cislunar” space — the region between the Earth and the moon — will create the conditions for a sustainable commercial ecosystem of suppliers and other adventurers.
Rocket options: Nasa SLS
The rocket that Nasa has commissioned to take the Orion spacecraft to the Moon and beyond. With a projected cost of $10bn when development began, the Space Launch System is modelled on the Saturn rockets that once carried the Apollo missions. (photo: Nasa)
As things stand now, “the whole space industry is too small,” according to Mr Bezos. Speaking at the industry’s main annual gathering in Colorado last week, he put the total space launch market at only $2.5bn a year. The high cost of putting people or cargo into space has throttled demand, he says: “The reason is we don’t fly very often.” Supplying bases on the moon — like a deep-space Amazon — would be one way to overcome that hurdle.
The renewed hopes for a return to the moon — and with it, the higher level of activity that would help to support commercial space industry — partly reflects optimism about the Trump administration. Nasa’s budget escaped the cuts proposed for some other agencies in the new president’s budget. Mr Trump has hinted at an ambitious space programme, talking recently of “American footprints on distant worlds”. Voyaging to the moon would generate much quicker political results than a Mars exploration, which Nasa has put more than 15 years from now.
A pass around the moon would also do wonders for the lead contractors of some of Nasa’s most ambitious long-term projects — Lockheed Martin, which is building the Orion spacecraft, and Boeing, which is leading the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), a giant rocket that would carry Orion out to the moon and beyond. Bringing forward the first manned test would mean increasing spending in the near-term on things such as life support systems, but would be “very positive for the programme,” says Mike Hawes, who heads the development at Lockheed.
Rocket options: SpaceX Falcon Heavy
An upgraded version of the Falcon 9 it already flies, SpaceX plans to use the Heavy to carry bigger payloads into orbit. The rocket — which will have extra boosters strapped to either side to add to its power — also plays a central role in Mr Musk’s goal of putting people into space. (photo: SpaceX)
It would also give the establishment contractors a win at a time when a disruptive commercial space sector — led by Mr Musk and Mr Bezos — is snapping at their heels. SpaceX and Blue Origin are both working on rockets capable of carrying much larger payloads and reaching further out into space.
The Nasa contractors claim there is still a gulf between the capabilities of their systems and those of the upstarts. Comparing the SpaceX rocket to the SLS is like comparing “a golf cart and a diesel pick-up truck”, says Jim Chilton, president of network and space systems at Boeing. Yet Mr Musk, has already earmarked a trip around the moon for his next rocket, matching it directly against SLS.
Mr Hawes at Lockheed also questions whether, when it comes to carrying astronauts, disruptive space start-ups such as SpaceX will be able to increase the capabilities and reliability of their rockets and spacecraft without at the same time adding greatly to their costs, eroding the advantage they have over companies like his. He also vowed to cut 50 per cent from the cost of building Orion, by doing things such as streamlining suppliers, using 3D printing, and making more of the spacecraft reusable. “These systems may be in competition with me, but I’m going to keep beating them,” he adds.
Rocket options: Blue Origin New Glenn 3-stage
Named after John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, the New Glenn will be the first rocket from Mr Bezos’s Blue Origin capable of putting a payload into orbit. The new engine being developed to power the rocket — called the BE-4 — could one day become the workhorse of heavy orbital launches. (photo: Blue Origin)
The real test for where collaboration ends in space and competition begins could come as sights move beyond the moon, to Mars. Boeing last week unveiled a plan for a space station in lunar orbit that would act as a “gateway” for a trip to Mars — a simplified version of an idea it first put forward last year.
This reflects the model of international collaboration that was established with the International Space Station, says Mr Hawes. Suppliers from around the world would contribute different parts of the infrastructure being built to support a mission to Mars.
However, Mr Musk’s company has a different view. Gwynne Shotwell, chief operating officer, last week brushed off a question about whether SpaceX would one day work alongside Nasa’s SLS. “We’re really focused on our programme,” she says. “We do plan to take initially large amounts of cargo and then crew to Mars.”
There will still be plenty of reasons to collaborate. Acting as suppliers of cargo for future missions — even flying out ahead of Orion to drop off supplies for a protracted stay on Mars — would be a boon for commercial rocket companies. And Mr Musk’s own dream of deep-space transporters, each carrying 100 people at a time, might prove impractical.
“If you look forward to deep space exploration, we all need to agree on an architecture where we don’t just take each other’s cheese,” says Mr Chilton of Boeing. It’s not yet clear if that co-operative way of working in space will define the next stage of exploration.
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