Are private sector companies igniting a new passion in space, picking up where public organisations like NASA left off? We consider a new age of space exploration, built on visionary thinking and groundbreaking design…
What happened to NASA’s big dreams of a moon base by 1980 and humans on Mars by 1983? Since the Apollo moon landings between 1969 and 1972, NASA’s space programs have taken some giant leaps but so far failed to reach their lofty ambitions.
From 1966, NASA and the US air force began developing the Space Shuttle program, which launched in 1981. The shuttle’s design was revolutionary – part rocket, part airplane – resulting in the world’s first reusable crewed spacecraft. But when the program was retired in 2011, NASA seemed to retreat into the retro rocket designs of the 1960s: craft that would never reach Mars or return to earth.
Against this backdrop of inertia, a recent space mission has come into stark relief. On 31 May 2020, Elon Musk’s SpaceX became the first private company to transport humans to the International Space Station. The mission builds on SpaceX’s achievements, including its reverse rocket landings, which look like scenes straight from a big-budget sci-fi film.
… the real engines driving today’s space industry are ingredients that have been missing for decades – the thrill of exploration and a genuine excitement about the future…
SpaceX isn’t the only private company grabbing the headlines. Rocket Lab, with its comparatively smaller rockets, is also returning craft to earth, massively cutting building costs.
Breakthrough design and engineering are central to these successes. Take SpaceX’s modular and reusable rockets. They streamline production and cut costs, in a similar way to the car industry constructing different bodies on top of similar chassis. And the company’s forthcoming super-heavy rocket – Starship – has its sights on the moon, Mars and beyond. Meanwhile, Rocket Lab’s Electron features a payload fairing that decouples payload integration from the main assembly. And its advanced carbon-composite construction delivers impressive cost and weight savings.
But perhaps the real engines driving today’s space industry are ingredients that have been missing for decades – the thrill of exploration and a genuine excitement about the future. Musk believes that one day, humanity will colonise Mars and become an interplanetary species. Who knows where a similar flight of visionary thinking might take other businesses right here on earth?
What do you think?
Are private companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab reinvigorating space travel and exploration? How might businesses capitalise on a similar desire to explore exciting new areas? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch