"Looks like we caught a dragon by the tail." Following in the great tradition of NASA sound bites, astronaut Don Pettit chose these words to describe the moment the SpaceX Dragon capsule docked to the International Space Station (ISS), becoming the first private mission to do so. His commentary for the agency’s live footage of the event on May 25 hardly compares with Neil Armstrong's, "That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Yet if we are to continue to push forward our horizons in space exploration, this key early step in the involvement of the commercial sector will one day take its place alongside other iconic moments in the NASA archive.
Earlier chapters of the history of human exploration provide key lessons for those wanting to see mankind's future direction in space. Man first set foot at the South Pole exactly 100 years ago and Antarctica provides a particularly good analogy. If we could return to the gentlemen’s clubs of London in 1912 we would hear the naysayers of the day sitting about in their slippers and smoking their pipes talking about Robert Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, saying, "What’s the point? It’s a frozen wasteland that can't be farmed and has no obvious military or strategic significance."
Scott's expeditions had a rich science legacy. Evidence was gathered that supported the later theory of continental drift, the exploration of the reptilian ancestry of birds and helped to explain the role of the Antarctic in the global weather system. As far as the public was concerned, it was more about heroism. Scott himself explored for the same reason every explorer does – it's just something our species does.
Most people don’t know that after Roald Amundsen and Scott, humans did not return to the South Pole until 1956, and this time it was the US Air Force travelling in aircraft built by the commercial sector. It was only many years later, when the cost of transport and logistics had come down enough so that it no longer presented a major obstacle, that exploration and its associated science could proceed and deliver its greatest rewards. The British Antarctic Survey generates a wide range of science, some of which is important to the very survival of our species. When Scott set out in his seal skins, he could not have imagined the ease with which we can now follow in his footsteps, nor the ultimate value that doing so would deliver 100 years later.
Ferdinand Magellan set out from southern Spain in 1519 with five ships and 270 men on an expedition which would complete the first circumnavigation of the globe three years later. He and some 232 crew members died en route and all but one of the ships was lost. Yet Magellan’s legacy is one of discovery, not loss. Again, the opening phases of naval exploration were fraught with risks to life and limb, expensive and loss-led by nations with broadly imperialist motives. But over time commercial shipping emerged. The resulting cultural and economic exchange would not have come about without both the efforts of the early pioneers and later development of cheap and safe ocean-going transportation by non-state, private entities.
No big space project has been successfully put together in the US unless it has been done within a single presidential term.
These are just two of many potential examples that highlight patterns in the way our species has repeatedly broadened its horizons. These patterns provide a glimpse into the likely future of human space exploration. It is now more than 40 years since the first lunar landing, and questions are sometimes asked about whether we should continue to explore space and if so how? Some have said the wider public don’t see the point and that we should spend the money on other things. There's a view that everyone supported Apollo and then got bored, but in fact the opposite is true. Looking at US public opinion polls, approval for the Shuttle programme was around 60-70% throughout, with only slight dips during the disasters; whereas approval for Apollo never hit 50% except for a few months either side of the landings. In a 2004 MORI poll in Britain, 60% of respondents supported our involvement in human exploration of Mars.
Whether or not the man or woman in the street is interested or supportive is not the issue. It's the financial realities that really count, and the current context of economic downturn and recession is clearly bleak. It is also worth noting that no big space project has been successfully put together in the US unless it has been done within a single presidential term. The new guy always comes in and shuts down his predecessor's projects. Some say the fine tradition of the romantic spirit of exploration for its own sake justifies sending humans back into space. It's an attractive proposition but at some point that needs to be grounded in reality, and the fact is we can only afford to go if it becomes much cheaper.
The only way to make continued exploration of space sustainable is to harness the commercial sector and the efficiencies of the market. This does not mean there should be a Disneyland and a Hilton Hotel on the Moon. Exploration of Antarctica was not enabled by tourism, but by Honda being paid to take an engine out of a motorbike and put it into a snowmobile, and paying commercial operators to fly people and equipment down to Punta Arenas. A hundred years after humans first went to the South Pole, we have the British Antarctic Survey, a government organisation that contracts private companies to provide the bits they do best. The government-sponsored scientists in Antarctica set the research or exploration goals, but they are wrapped in kit that is relatively affordable because the market has made it so. It’s this synergy that points the way forward in space.
NASA has already partly recognised this. Under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) (COTS) programme, the agency is paying SpaceX, from California, and fellow private provider Orbital Sciences Corporation, based in Virginia, to demonstrate the ability to fly payloads to the ISS. In 2008, NASA awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract for 12 flights to the ISS in low Earth orbit, 250 miles above the planet. May’s landmark flight took half a tonne of food and supplies to the astronauts on board the ISS and returned with two-thirds of a tonne of completed experiments and redundant equipment. The hope is that within a couple of years the Dragon might be able to handle astronaut transport too.
SpaceX is focused on advancing rocket technology. It has already sold slots on its rockets to the satellite communications industry and the hope is that the company will gain the expertise to reduce costs significantly. SpaceX was founded by PayPal creator, inventor and multi-billionaire Elon Musk. Currently it costs $22,000 to get a kilo to orbit. Musk says he will soon reveal how he can get that down to $1,000 per kilo. If he is right and he can cut the cost even in half it will be a breakthrough of huge significance.
But Musk's ambitions extend far beyond low Earth orbit. He has talked about getting to Mars by 2030, and says he has worked out how to send a person on a round trip to the planet for around $500,000. He told me he will reveal more about how he plans to do this later this year or early in 2013. These are truly extraordinary statements that I personally find hard to swallow. I have thought a lot about getting to Mars. It’s what has driven my professional interest for the last 10 years.
The only way to make continued exploration of space sustainable is to harness the commercial sector and the efficiencies of the market.
Space is not a single location. Getting to the Moon is maybe around 10 times harder than getting to low Earth orbit, and getting to Mars is more than 10 times harder again compared to a Moon mission. We're talking about the longest, most remote, most dangerous and ambitious expedition in the history of our species. While low Earth orbit is 250 miles away, Mars is hundreds of millions of miles away, with the precise distance depending on the orbital path taken. We've been sending spacecraft to Mars since the 1970s and we've been hitting it with a vehicle that has survived in around one in three missions. Even harder than getting there is the technical difficulty related to the fragility of the human body over the time periods required to get there. We must be able to get astronauts there and back in a healthy state. There are still some fundamental questions to be answered about what happens to a human body and the human psyche on a mission that will last more than a year.
We've had space visionaries with big dreams before. However Musk is different because he has a track record of success and a $628 billion fortune to play with. People have said he can’t and he won't, and he has repeatedly proved them wrong. He said he'd build rockets, and he has pretty much built them in his garage. Granted, he has a better garage than most of us, but his track record with rocket launches is at least as good as any nation state.
There were doubts that he would hit his timelines for the Dragon but he has managed to launch, rendezvous, berth with the ISS, unberth, re-enter and splash down successfully and to schedule. Perhaps it is not apparent from watching the footage of the Dragon docking with the ISS what an extraordinary feat it was. We’re talking about two objects moving at 17,000 mph, at 250 miles altitude, one built by a privateer and the other by a partnership of 16 nation states. So far Musk's performance has been singularly impressive, and so even when he makes big claims he is not someone who can be easily dismissed.
Putting human space exploration on a sustainable footing by embracing the private sector is both bold and difficult.
Space agencies around the world face the challenge of trying to do more with less. The only way we can continue to explore space is through commercial involvement and international collaboration. NASA's new strategy is to encourage the development of private sector operations in low Earth orbit to improve efficiency. The idea is that this then frees NASA up to explore beyond Earth's orbit. The specific destination has not been defined. It could be a return to the Moon, Mars or a near-Earth asteroid.
Some say this makes NASA appear rudderless because the agency has previously worked best when it has a clear destination in its sights. It is an engineering culture and engineers are driven by mission requirements which are clearest when the goal is a specific destination. Yet putting human space exploration on a sustainable footing by embracing the private sector is both bold and difficult.
There are those who say you can't make space flight affordable. It's a mistake to look at the vast expanse of the Universe and say it cannot be tamed. It’s comparable to a caveman two million years ago believing he cannot get beyond the nearby mountain range. I believe it is entirely likely that by the middle of this century we will access the surface of the Moon with the same ease that we access Antarctica today, and our young research students will be sent off to study the lunar environment. Getting to Mars will involve a partnership between many nation states supported by commercial providers like Musk providing key components from launch vehicles to life support systems.
The future of human space exploration looks bright. If NASA gets it right and Musk continues to startle and astonish with his achievements then it will look even brighter still.