Tuesday, 15 May 2012 09:49
May 15, 2012
If all goes according to plan – and that is a relatively big if – the very essence of space travel will change this Saturday.
Depending on a number of factors, including the day's weather and officials' confidence in their engineering research, May 19th, 2012, could stand as an important anniversary in the transition away from NASA-funded space travel and exploration and toward a new era financed by the private sector.
California-based SpaceX is set for the first time to launch a rocket to the International Space Station that will carry thousands of pounds in supplies for crewmembers. Since NASA retired its vaunted Space Shuttle program last year, private companies, including Boeing, Virgin and Planetary Resources, have worked to fill the void created by the program's historic end.
SpaceX has been at the forefront of the private race to space, and even though it has had to postpone a number of planned launches, the company is eyeing this Saturday as its first official attempt to carry cargo to the ISS. Even though SpaceX is not delivering astronauts to the ISS, a successful launch will represent the culmination of years of research and hundreds of millions of dollars in investment.
The New York Times reports that after decades of government dominance in the space travel and exploration sector, it is on the precipice of a new era. If all goes according to schedule, SpaceX will own the first private spacecraft to successfully travel to the ISS, an achievement that will embolden other companies similarly vying to democratize and profit from space travel.
Those bullish on the sector have only grown more confident over the past few years. Virgin Galactic, an arm of Richard Branson's Virgin empire, for instance has witnessed robust demand among the general populace for a chance to participate in suborbital rides to space. Like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic is set to whisk its first set of passengers on one such journey this year, underscoring what many are referring to as a watershed moment for space travel and exploration.
For its part, SpaceX already plays a substantial role in at least one space-related field: the company is an industry leader in launching commercial satellites. According to the Times, it has announced more than $1 billion in such deals over the past few years, making its transition to a more exploratory role if not inevitable, then most certainly logical.
SpaceX is the brainchild of founder and chief executive Elon Musk, who is as confident now as ever in his company's mission.
"I think humanity needs to get to Mars one way or another," Musk said, affirming his hopes to send astronauts to Mars within the next decade. If such a goal is unattainable, Musk contended that the company would most certainly do so within 20 years. He conceded he has not fully developed a system for accomplishing such an objective.
"I would prefer it would be with NASA," Musk said. "If not, we have to find another path."
Like all entrepreneurs, Musk hopes to profit from an industry that has thus far failed to prove its viability. Nonetheless, those within the sector are bullish on future growth, especially as they see myriad areas for cutting costs and improving efficiency. Improving the underlying fundamentals of space travel and research would help drive down costs for consumers, ultimately igniting growth, argued Jeff Greason, the chief executive of XCOR Aerospace, a firm that hopes to be a major player in space tourism.
"SpaceX is attempting to build the same class of vehicle, to my mind, only with modern manufacturing techniques and management techniques to reduce the cost," Greason noted.
The evolution of private space travel would also benefit NASA, experts say, as it would not longer have to rely on Russian spacecraft to transport American astronauts.
Amid such a confluence of variables, the continued exploration and study of space seems primed for a new era, scientists assert.
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