Billionaire space race expands industry, ‘democratizes’ space

New Shepard lifts off from Launch Site One in West Texas with four humans on board on July 20, 2021. This flight from Blue Origin was Jeff Bezos’ first space flight and is part of a new push for space tourism. (Blue Origin)

A new push for space tourism is expanding as some billionaires start a new space race with their recent flights. Opportunities for students entering the space industry are increasing while the potential for a democratization of space seems near.

The three billionaires turned space company owners in the spotlight are Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos, Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and SpaceX’s Elon Musk.

Richard Branson reached space in his rocket plane on July 11 during a 1.5 hour mission to the edge of space. Jeff Bezos completed his first space venture on July 20 with a quick, suborbital flight.

BYU electrical and computer engineering professor David Long said these flights just went high into space and could be considered “expensive joy rides.” They did not go fully into orbit so they cannot be considered space exploration. Instead, flights like these are considered part of space tourism, where human space travel is for recreational purposes.

Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are more focused on space tourism, but have grander plans in store. Virgin Galactic’s mission is to be the world’s first commercial spaceline that is “developing and operating a new generation of space vehicles to open space for everyone.”

Blue Origin has a “vision of enabling a future where millions of people are living and working in space to benefit Earth. In order to preserve Earth, Blue Origin believes that humanity will need to expand, explore, find new energy and material resources and move industries that stress Earth into space,” Blue Origin’s website states. This could include putting manufacturing on the moon or mining asteroids for copper, gold and other metals.

NASA and other government space agencies focus on space exploration, such as sending people to the moon and other planets, and science regarding observing the universe, climate change and more, rather than space tourism. Vice president of the BYU Rocketry Club and mechanical engineering senior Mark Sweeney said NASA’s goals are for the public good, compared to private industries who are usually more money-driven.

SpaceX, although a private company and not a government agency, has expressed greater interest in space exploration. The company’s stated purpose is “making humanity multiplanetary” and it’s had over 127 launches, with many of them going into orbit or further.

Democratization of space

The U.S. government and NASA help fund projects for several space companies such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, Long said. By funding private launch vehicles and private companies, access to space is increased which makes it cheaper for companies to launch payloads and other technology.

Long said NASA continues to develop more exotic technologies, but once the technologies are developed, it is easier for NASA to launch with private companies. This is because private companies do not have to worry about so many government regulations that government agencies have to follow. The private industry can then develop better and more cost-efficient technologies for launches, such as how SpaceX figured out how to reuse their rocket boosters, Long said.

Long compared the evolution of spacecraft to the development of the aircraft industry. Many of the first planes were experimental toys available only to the rich and elite. Once the military stepped in and funded planes as weapons of war, Long said there were huge advances in aircraft development.

The modern planes used today for commercial flying were developed because of private companies funded by the government that were building military aircraft. Having government support for private industry helps more development to occur which allows aircraft travel to be more accessible to the public, Long said.

In the last decade and a half however, several billionaires such as Musk, Bezos and Branson have gotten involved and started the private space industry. “They have space companies they’re playing with and their big toys, but what is really happening is a niche has been identified that is being fulfilled,” said Adam Dunford, physics senior and member of the BYU Rocketry Club’s High Power Team.

This push for private space tourism is opening up a future where everyone could become an astronaut, Dunford said.

Companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin will continue working on space tourism flights until they become routine and if the supply of space flights rises, the prices will drop. As the prices drop, it’ll get easier for everyone to join in, Dunford said. Or in other words, space is being democratized and slowly becoming more accessible to everyday people.

“Each of these companies joining the new space race, they have their own axioms and missions and purposes, but the unifying factor is to democratize space, bring down the price and make it more accessible for everyone,” Dunford said.

Space tourism will most likely stay for a while in the realm of suborbital “joy rides,” but the goal is to develop these technologies further so companies can be better at going orbital and make the flights more cost effective and efficient, Dunford said. “Space tourism is essentially the first step toward the real space industry.”

Eventually, Long said, it could even become cheap enough that it will be common place for people to go into orbit, visit the space station or land on the moon.

Sweeney said even though the new space race is starting with billionaires paying for themselves, it is really exciting because it is the first step in decreasing the cost of space for everyone. “I don’t think I will be going to space anytime soon, but I think by initiating that market, it’s allowing technology to develop and to become more cost effective.”

NASA currently even has plans for a series of new lunar missions with the intention to create a permanent moon base, Dunford said.

Increased opportunities for students

Dunford said he loved watching shuttle launches and learning about the Mars rovers growing up. In the past, people had to look harder in the news for new space announcements, he said, “but now there is so much more to be excited about!”

As someone going into the industry, Dunford said he thinks it is fabulous there are new launch providers, more companies, and a wider range of rockets and payloads to work on in the expanding industry. “We’re in this new territory, you can really feel it. This is a big change,” Dunford said.

Sweeney currently is working on an internship with HyPerComp Engineering Incorporated which has a contract with Blue Origin and is one of many examples of students having wider opportunities for work in the space industry.

Dunford said recently, the BYU Spacecraft Club got a satellite on a Rocket Lab launch and there have been examples of high school robotics clubs receiving funding and sending satellites into space as well. “This is the idea behind democratizing space,” he said — making space accessible to even high school robotics clubs.

BYU is a member of Utah NASA Space Grant Consortium. This means NASA gives money to BYU students through scholarships and fellowships for basic research and to support those going into STEM fields. Because of this, Long said BYU students have had several opportunities to build satellites, propose their own projects, conduct research and make new discoveries through the funding from NASA.

“Space is the new and final frontier and we heard stories about space cowboys and for a while, it was just a dream,” Dunford said. “Now we are looking at this world where it’s going to happen. We really are starting, we are just beginning our journey into space exploration and I am excited to be a part of it.”

Looking forward

“We can all be excited about the new space race,” Dunford said. Although it can be hard to look at billionaires like Bezos and be excited for them, “the result is that space exploration is becoming a reality in our lifetimes and I am just grateful to be here for it.”

Looking at it short term, a lot of space travel doesn’t seem to make sense, Sweeney said. “It also didn’t make sense to send Columbus across the ocean for him to have a grand adventure, but it made a big difference in the future of humanity.”

“In a way, the reason (the billionaires) were on their flights was self serving, but I think they’re headed in the right direction,” Sweeney said.

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