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3.24 Future of Space Exploration

A casual observer of the space program might get the impression that it's languishing in the doldrums. We haven't been back to the Moon for over forty years. The Space Shuttle was retired in 2011 after a rocky history that saw two out of the five orbiters destroyed catastrophically with the death of all on board. For four years the United States has only been able to get astronauts into Earth orbit with help from the Russians, who aren't always our best friends these days. The International Space Station is functional, but it's unpopular with the companies it was supposed to attract. To many pundits in the space community, the project smacks of international pork. Even the fledgling commercial space industry is having teething problems. Virgin Galactic slipped its planned start date for suborbital joy rides many times, and in 2014 it lost one of its prototype Space Ship Two craft with the death of one of the pilots. Orbital Sciences also suffered a failure when its Antares rocket was completely destroyed. Mars One, a private company based in Holland is talking about sending colonists to Mars, but technical experts doubt they can reach their goals in the way they describe.

However, we may be on the cusp of the time when space activity finally takes off. Making an analogy with the history of the Internet, the current time is like 1995 was for information technology. That was when the term Internet was coined and the fledgling network began to impact the public consciousness. The first web browser, Netscape Navigator, was designed by 24-year-old Marc Andreessen and his company's IPO was a huge and unexpected success. Other start-ups that year were Amazon, eBay, and Yahoo, and two Stanford grad students met for the first time to discuss a research project. The company they started three years later turned into the Internet leviathan Google.

The history of the Internet has four overlapping phases. The first began in 1962 with the publication of a series of memos by MIT researcher J.R. Licklider, discussing a concept that he called the "Galactic Network.quot; He envisaged a global set of wirelessly interconnected computers where everyone could access data and software from any site. At a time when computers used punch cards and each was the size of a living room this was a striking vision. In the next phase, the Internet was incubated by the military-industrial complex. The ARPANET and email were used initially only by Defense Department employees and their civilian contractors. Then development spread to a large number of universities and research institutes. In 1995, the National Science Foundation released the network to be managed by commercial Internet Service Providers. The result has burgeoned into a trillion dollar enterprise that has transformed everyday life. Pioneers of the space program were Robert Goddard, who first launched a rocket propellant in 1926, and Wernher von Braun, who was brought to the United States at the end of the Second World War to harness his expertise, which had been used in designing V2 rockets for the German war effort. In the second phase of rocket development, the military played a leading role and the Apollo launches were a direct consequence of an intense military rivalry with the Soviet Union.

The third phase of space development was led by NASA and its civilian contractors like Boeing and Lockheed, along with research institutes and universities. That activity hasn't stopped, but it has been augmented by something new and exciting. There are more than a dozen commercial space companies, most formed in the past five years. Virgin Galactic has taken $80 million in deposits for its sub-orbital joy rides. The first space tourists paid $15-20 million for the experience, but the costs will come down as the activity builds. Surveys of millennial plus assuming a launch cost per kilogram, five times less than can be achieved currently, project yearly revenue of $30 to $50 billion. For comparison, Hollywood box office receipts are $20 billion a year.

Commercial space flight will evolve in unexpected ways, and it will probably be messy and occasionally ugly. People will die, just as they did in the early days of civil aviation. Those who go up for a unique experience will accept the risk. A profit motive is likely to spawn sex motels in orbit and garish forms of advertising. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits the miniaturization of space and stops governments from claiming ownership of real estate beyond the Earth, but it makes no mention of corporations or individuals. Some of the billionaires that dabble in space travel may have their eyes set on off-Earth empires. It could end up being a Wild West out there. Time will tell whether Virgin Galactic and SpaceX fail and fade away as the first web browsers and ISPs did, or become behemoths like Amazon and Google. If there is a space boom, we'll all have ringside seats to watch it unfold, and some of us will go along for the ride.