October may be the time geese head south. In Las Cruces, It’s the time leaders of the commercial spaceflight industry assemble at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum for the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS).
Dr. Patricia Haynes, director of NMSU’s Space Grant Consortium and ISPCS curator, has spoken of the early years, when a few visionary people gathered to talk about possibilities. Since then possibilities have become business plans, and a few people have grown into the 250 who attended this year’s 12th annual symposium, where the theme was “We will not stop!”
As a kid, I dreamed of flying in space, colonizing the moon and planets. For me, it has remained a dream. Boys and girls today don’t have to dream. They can plan, because during their lives, people will leave Earth to work in space, to build a lunar base, to visit Mars. These are not pipe dreams. Experts at ISPCS have concrete plans to do just this.
What we see happening in commercial spaceflight today is just the first step. SpaceX is launching its Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon capsule, supplying the International Space Station (ISS). On October 17, Orbital ATK launched its Antares rocket with its Cygnus cargo spacecraft to ISS. It was their first flight after a failed launch nearly two years ago. Both companies are moving ahead with spacecraft soon to be certified to fly people to space. Blue Origin, established by Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, is the third. Its rocket and crew spacecraft should be flying by the end of next year, the others in 2018.
Virgin Galactic, for whom we have been waiting to launch from Spaceport America, is flight testing the replacement SpaceShipTwo, following the crash of their original craft. New technologies take more time than anyone expected, but Virgin is determined to build a spaceship that is safe enough to carry the boss, Sir Richard Branson, into space.
Beyond these “joy rides for rich people” Virgin is planning, there’s a much larger vision in play. Branson created Virgin Atlantic in 1984, the first low-cost airline to transit the ocean. He’s always been willing to take risks, when the reward was worth it. Virgin Galactic is his latest venture. Flights from Spaceport America will test technologies and gain invaluable experience for the company. This will lead, perhaps within 20 years, to sub-orbital ballistic point-to-point flights — spacecraft flying at hypersonic speeds (more than 4,000 mph) from here to London in less than two hours or to Sydney in less than four hours.
Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune in hotels, founded Bigelow Aerospace to fulfill part of his childhood dream. Bigelow has developed an expandable space habitat. It has 12,000 cubic feet of space, about four times the size of the average home. Ready to fly a couple years ago, Bigelow has been waiting for the rocket developers to catch up. Now they have. Bigelow is testing one of his habitats on the ISS. He told me, when the rocket makers perfect recoverable and reusable boosters and capsules, he would be able to put six researchers from a university or company into orbit for about $1 million. Compare that to the $450 million for a single Space Shuttle mission. Bigelow’s habitats can be coupled to form larger space stations or housing for a lunar base.
Regarding the reusability of rockets, remember every time we launched a rocket over the past 50 years, the booster did its job and then fell into the ocean. It was like using a Boeing 787 Dreamliner for one flight, then scrapping it. SpaceX has had a number of its boosters return from space to land vertically. An impressive video you can watch on YouTube, at youtu.be/c7Q-IY9qhBs, shows Blue Origin testing the escape system for its crew capsule. Not only does it recover the capsule, returning people safely to Earth in an emergency, but it also recovered the booster. The rocket rose to over 240,000 feet and then, with the aid of stabilizers, dropped vertically toward the ground. On its way down, the engine restarted, legs extended, and it landed. It was the fifth time this booster has been used.
SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing with its Crew Space Transportation craft, and Bigelow were the stars at this year’s ISPCS. But they weren’t the only players. Much of the information shared was highly technical and shared in ways most competitors eschew.
William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, and Moriba Jah, University of Arizona director for space object behavioral sciences, talked about the problems and solutions of occupying space. How to regulate the use of space to limit chances of collisions. How to guarantee equitable access within international treaties. How private industry and governments can more fully cooperate, both nationally and internationally.
These problems require solutions, especially when you consider the moon is protected by an international treaty, just like Antarctica. What happens when one company decides it’s going to mine the moon, where there are substantial quantities of titanium, magnesium, rare earth metals — like erbium and yttrium used in digital microcircuits — and helium 3, an isotope that promises success in nuclear fusion reactors for energy generation. Who says who can do what and when?
Opening space to the average person should be a cooperative enterprise for the global community. You could hear telltales of that idea during the symposium.
Elon Musk, who made his fortune with PayPal and founded SpaceX, was subject to many conversations. He gave a talk at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico in September, laying out his vision of colonizing Mars. He talked of transporting thousand of earthlings to Mars over a 40 year period. Should they only be Americans?
Other experts talk of mining in space and processing ore at space stations. Should these be staffed regardless of national origin? Should only the country of origin who develops the processing benefit? China is steadily moving into space. Should the U.S. see this as a threat to our long-term occupation of space exploration or should the countries combine intellectual and financial resources to benefit the planet?
There’ll be plenty to talk about at future commercial spaceflight symposia as these entrepreneurial companies execute business plans and fly to space.
Meanwhile, children who are in middle school today will become the next generation of industry leaders, the astronauts, the adventurers, the pioneers. How I wish I were seven years old again.