Commercial space travel may no longer be a shot in the dark thanks to rapid advancements in aerospace technology and a shift in how space technology is funded. Space programs have historically been limited by government budget constraints, but during the last two decades, a few adventurous billionaires began investing in space technology. Private space travel is an emerging industry that’s changing the way we view the universe.
Why it Makes Sense Now
Public funding for space programs isn’t guaranteed — each country’s current administration must determine how to manage priorities within a budget. Commercializing space travel invites competition, which brings not only new opportunities for funding, but also a new enthusiasm from the private sector that could spark innovation. When private companies get paid to bring things or people into space, some of the burdens are shifted away from government space programs, such as NASA.
Commercial space travel is possible as a result of recent advancements in propulsion methods, robotics and communication, plus new solutions such as autonomous rocket-tracking technology, as described by MIT Technology Review. Traditionally, astronauts have undergone extensive training to prepare physically and mentally for the challenges of space travel, but today’s spacecraft are automated, so anyone who is healthy and wealthy can travel beyond our planet. Not only have robotic spacecrafts improved, but so have the communication methods. With low latency live video feeds, an amateur space traveler can get help from experts back on Earth.
Types of Commercial Space Travel
If you have enough money to travel anywhere, there’s not a more far-flung and unique destination than space. Space tourism began in 2001, when American Dennis Tito paid $20 million to become the first space tourist, traveling on a Russian rocket to visit the International Space Station (ISS). Billionaire tech entrepreneurs are responding to the siren song of space travel, as some companies have laid out big plans for bringing people to visit lower Earth orbit and eventually to live on Mars or other planets.
Contracted government work is another way commercial space companies can make money. NASA’s shuttle program was retired in 2011, and now private companies are paid to bring cargo and people to space. With commercial rockets launching satellites into orbit and delivering supplies to the ISS, traditional space programs have more capacity to focus on developing spacecraft and rockets for deep space missions. There are economic benefits, too; according to NASA, more than 1,000 suppliers are working across the U.S. on commercial crew spacecraft systems. Additionally, private companies need commercial services — especially delivering satellites to space. Satellites are used for navigation, aerial photography and mapping, television, communication and internet.
Infinity and Beyond
For many space experts, the next big goal is visiting and perhaps colonizing Mars. Projects such as Bill Nye’s LightSail aim to find ways to travel long distances without traditional rocket fuel, which is heavy, expensive and finite. Stratolaunch, backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is pioneering a new way to lift heavy objects into space with minimal fuel by launching rockets off a gigantic airplane, according to Engadget.
Other projects are exploring ideas such as reusable rockets, propellant depots and asteroid mining, which could make deep space reachable and profitable. With more companies getting involved in space exploration travel, the places we’ve only dreamed of visiting may eventually be common destinations.
This article was originally published on March 30, 2018.