Just like calling racehorses to post, the bugle sounds out the familiar strain. Only the bugler isn’t alerting jockeys to the starting gate, she’s calling a unique group of people to the conference room.
This is opening day for the 11th International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS), conducted October 7 and 8 at the Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum. More than 200 men and women in attendance represented business owners, scientists, engineers, and technologists — including six former astronauts — all of whom are involved in developing commercial spaceflight. Their gathering in Las Cruces makes this perhaps the most important commercial spaceflight conference in the nation — and perhaps the world.
What transpired over the two days were progress reports by companies building rocket-propelled transportation systems to carry cargo and people to space. There were discussions about the International Space Station (ISS) and what can be accomplished in low-earth orbit; other, more loftier talks about colonizing the moon and Mars. Some talks were highly technical, dealing not only with technology issues but also legal and legislative issues.
To appreciate the significance of ISPCS, consider this — only 551 people, out of seven billion humans on earth, have ever flown in space. Yet space has intrigued millions. Ever since 1865, when Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon, people have gazed heavenward and dreamed to going to space. The desire to explore space remains strong as shown by the latest Star Wars film, whose trailer generated such a high level of interest, web sites crashed from people trying to purchase opening-day tickets.
Space is the new frontier. It’s also the last frontier, albeit given the fact we have barely explored the depths of earth’s oceans. Everyone can gaze at the night sky and see the stars. Not everyone has access to the sea.
So what did people learn at ISPCS 2015?
We have seen video clips of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket and SpaceX’s Falcon rocket exploding on launch, failing to deliver cargo to the ISS. Some may conclude spaceflight isn’t safe. Rand Simberg, copies of whose book, Safe Is Not An Option, circulated during the conference, would argue, “The futile obsession with getting everyone back alive is killing our expansion into space.” He writes if Columbus had the attitude Americans have toward spaceflight, we’d all be reading this in Europe. He also said, opening a new frontier is always fraught with risk. Here in New Mexico, we can appreciate what the Spanish and later Anglos endured building a society in the desert. Many died so others could succeed.
Representatives of both SpaceX and Orbital ATK spoke of what they learned and how excited they are to be readying their next flights later this year and early next year.
SpaceX, along with Boeing, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada, all talked about spacecraft capable of transporting people to space. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, now used as a cargo carrier, is expected to be crew-certified in a short while. Boeing is developing the Commercial Crew System, another capsule, while Blue Origin’s New Shepard and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser are both lifting-bodies, flying much like the Space Shuttle did.
All four companies are working toward reusable launch vehicles, which they call singlestage to orbit. Rockets, now dumped in the ocean after use, soon will return and land, to be readied to another flight dramatically reducing the cost to reach space. Within the next five years, we could see proven transportation systems, giving commercial users four choices, much like we can fly American, Southwest, and United.
The only destination in space, so far, is ISS, which has become a laboratory not only to study the effects of microgravity on humans (think of Astronaut Scott Kelley floating around for a year) but also developing emerging space-based technologies.
Gregory Johnson is a former NASA astronaut — veteran of two Space Shuttle flights — and now is executive director for the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). Last year, Johnson said, ISS was rebranded as the ISS National Laboratory and his job is to generate commercial activity leading to marketable products and services.
“Our mission is to impact earth,” he said. “We’re trying to exploit the space station for its microgravity component, exploit the environment outside of the atmosphere, and finally test innovative ideas some of the emerging companies are thinking about.”
He spoke of pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck, which is experimenting on ISS with growing crystals of larger and higher quality than can be grown on earth. Merck expects them to have an impact on developing new drugs to combat HIV, hepatitis, and cholesterol.
Another part of what CASIS is doing involves on-orbit production, for exotic materials that can only be produced in microgravity. These experiments could lead to a future commercial space station devoted to producing one of these materials and generating a billion dollar market on earth.
One of those experiments was conducted by Made In Space. Andrew Rush, president of Made In Space, explained his company was founded in 2010, focusing on building tools that will help people live and work in space. “We have a passion to help make colonization of space a reality.”
Made In Space’s experiment used a 3D printer. Most manufacturing starts with a block of material and removes everything not essential to the part being made. Three-D printing is additive. Beginning with a digital plan, the printer lays down layer after layer of material to create complex parts. “We manufactured the very first object off the face of the earth,” he said.
More than a half century ago, in 1961, Alan Shepard was launched on a Redstone rocket in the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule, opening space for America. You might think we’ve come a long way in that time, but … actually … we’ve just completed a series of baby steps. We’ve launched a lot of satellites that do good things for us. We’ve sent robots to explore all the planets, a couple comets, and an asteroid. We even once flew to the moon. Apparently, few people have really thought space exploration was all that important.
The emerging commercial spaceflight industry stands poised to change us from “space toddlers” to a true space-faring society — one in which people live and work in space, manufacturing, doing basic science, practicing medicine, opening the frontier for others.
It may take another generation, but — as Dr. Patricia Hynes, ISPCS curator, said at the opening of this year’s conference, all those in attendance are making a difference, making it possible for those visions we’ve held for decades to become reality.