This post is written by Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom, VP of Operations for Singularity University. She spent two decades in the private space sector working on program development and operations for companies and organizations like Space Adventures, Odyssey Moon and the International Space University. She co-authored the book Realizing Tormorrow: The Path to Private Spaceflight.
Space exploration has always been deemed too expensive and difficult for private enterprise, a realm that only massive government programs could hope to enter. And now with the recent NASA Space Shuttle retirement, and thousands of displaced NASA employees wondering where the future of NASA will be, it is therefore easy for the world to paint a bleak future of space exploration. It turns out, however, that space exploration is now in the midst of an incredible transition as private enterprise is boldly taking over where big government has left off.
The seeds for this transition were planted a decade ago when a few very wealthy individuals such as Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, and Charles Simonyi bought access to the International Space Station through Russian spacecraft to begin commercial access. As a result, we are now witnessing the birth of a new era in space exploration that is more versatile and innovative than big government space programs ever could have hoped to achieve.
Last month, SpaceX launched the Dragon on a Falcon 9 rocket, an orbital transport system capable of ferrying astronauts and rendezvousing with the International Space Station. Elon Musk’s SpaceX was the first private company to ever attempt a round trip to ISS, and their success was a big triumph for commercial spaceflight . The capsule used for low earth transport was designed by Mr. Musk’s SpaceX for future interplanetary missions to Mars. When former internet moguls – like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Charles Simonyi, and now Sergey Brin - start making space their playground and invest their money in once science fiction endeavors as space exploration and asteroid mining – there is hope for the once cash strapped industry.
While the multibillionaires start working on varying designs to get us up in space cheaply, a second wave (akin to the maker community) have started to take it upon themselves to take the definition of “smarter, faster, cheaper” to a whole new level. Just like the rise of electronics hobbyists in the 1970’s and the proliferation of garage manufactured personal computers, the do-it-yourself DIY movement is now making use of rapidly developing and exponential technologies to creatively come up with new ways to affordably spark the commercial space revolution. The first microcomputers, like the Apple I, were not impressive, but they eventually expanded far beyond the market for mainframes and minicomputers made by IBM and DEC in the early 80s.
Out of the woodwork, small projects like PhoneSat (developed in conjunction with NASA) and startup ArduSat are using off-the-shelf technology to accomplish at low cost what only big, massive satellite systems could do in decades past.
PhoneSat is a small (10 cm) cube satellite project that makes use of smartphones as the central processing unit. With the computing power equivalent to big mainframe computers a couple of decades ago and with a wealth of sensors, cell phones are essentially supercomputers in our pockets – easy to hack and modify to serve many applications and uses. Similarly, ArduSat has raised money in Kickstarter to make available open source platforms using a 1-2 kg cube satellite powered by an Arduino CPU. Available sensor capabilities are being applied to photography, meteor detection, atmospheric remote sensing, and topography for the general public at a fraction of the cost and time to access.
Out of Singularity University’s summer team projects, Made in Space is riding on the rise of 3D printing technology as the next disruptive phenomenon in the manufacturing industry. They plan to 3D print in space parts that would otherwise have to be launched from Earth, cutting the cost and wait time for broken systems waiting for parts in space. (Apollo 13 could have used such a 3D printer to fit their square CO2 filter into their round hole.) For interplanetary exploration, this would allow missions to just bring their own 3D printers, and make use of available materials (or even dirt) to manufacture what they need to live and survive once they reach their destinations.
Other groups are focusing on novel propulsion systems. The microthruster program at EPFL in Lausanne is developing a micro engine for nano-satellites that can potentially send a satellite to the moon in six months using two shot glasses worth of fuel.
They are working on a project CleanSpace One to make use of these nano-satellites to clean space and capture debris. Long time organizations like the Planetary Society are also working on using solar sails to propel nano-satellites through the solar system. The project Light Sail-1, now in development will demonstrate that sunlight can propel a spacecraft to higher Earth orbits.
As we eagerly wait for the start of commercial human spaceflight with companies like Virgin Galactic, XCOR and Armadillo Aerospace to name a few, grass-roots start ups are innovating on their own with very little budget. The notion to not wait on big bureaucratic organizations and government subsidy to move space exploration along brings a brighter future to the space industry. Decades ago, it took a great deal of vision to imagine that the simple Apple I that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built could lead to the most valuable company in the world. Who has the vision to see where the current DIY space projects will lead?