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How Private Companies Are Changing The Future Of Space Exploration

SpaceX founder Elon Musk addresses the media alongside NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, and astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, during a press conference announcing new developments of the Crew Dragon reusable spacecraft, at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California on October 10, 2019. (Philip Pacheco / AFP)
SpaceX founder Elon Musk addresses the media alongside NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, and astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, during a press conference announcing new developments of the Crew Dragon reusable spacecraft, at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California on October 10, 2019. (Philip Pacheco / AFP)

Private companies like SpaceX are testing vehicles for manned space missions. We’ll peer out into the near future and next steps in human space exploration.


Ariel Ekblaw, founder and lead of MIT Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative. (@ariel_ekblaw)

Charles Bolden, NASA administrator from 2009-2017, and a former astronaut and Marine Corps general. (@cboldenjr)

Interview Highlights

American astronaut Christina Koch broke the record for the longest-ever space flight by a woman today. Where is human space exploration going next?

Ariel Ekblaw: “It’s a huge milestone. Part of her story around the spacesuit, and the sizing of the spacesuits, and the all-female spacewalk is something that we pay a lot of attention to at our group at M.I.T. And then being able to be in space for that length of time provides an invaluable sense of knowledge of what is the human lived experience of space.

“How might we better design for her comfort to delight her in space? To now, thanks to standing on the shoulders of groups like NASA and Charlie’s work, think about not just a survivalist mode for space exploration, but what are the artifacts, and the tools, and the experiences that we could design for Christine in the future? Given her experience of this 300-plus-day journey and stay to really delight her for her experience in space exploration. And in the future, scale that to space tourists and others besides astronauts.”

On how close we are to regular space tourism

Ariel Ekblaw: “I would say we’re both close — we’re dangerously close — and yet so far away. So companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are racing to be able to send some of the first space tourists into low Earth orbit on some of their crafts, in either this year, or upcoming years. With Axiom and the announcement from NASA about the first commercial space station to be attached to the International Space Station.

“We’re beginning to build up that infrastructure that could support real space tourism. There are still, as I’m sure Charlie can also speak to, large unanswered questions about how do you prepare someone if not off the street — A space enthusiast — for the experience of space when they’re not necessarily going to have the same in-depth, extensive training as a NASA astronaut? How do we keep them safe? How do we handle mental health? How do we prepare them for both the excitement and the responsibility that they might have as a member of a crew in a resource constrained environment?”

On whether people who aren’t trained as astronauts should be able to go into space

Charles Bolden: “Yes, without a doubt. … They’ve got to have some training. But I would say it depends on what the flight is going to be. I haven’t had a chance to talk to Beth Moses from Virgin Galactic. But Beth would be — she’s not a normal person off the street, because she’s the astronaut training officer at Blue Origin. But Beth had an opportunity to fly, and she didn’t go through years of training. You know, I think there’s some fundamental things that you teach someone about mobility. And, ‘don’t touch that.’ And you let them go.”

On whether it’s possible to go to Mars without commercial interest involved

Ariel Ekblaw: “I think it’s critical to have both. As Charlie and Dava Newman — another colleague of mine — have shown: the path from moon to Mars is going to be a public-private partnership path. And we need the capability that private brings and the inspiration that NASA and that the governments can still bring to the task.”

On what it’s like to go to space

Charles Bolden: “It’s much more spectacular than the pictures portray. We have great cameras nowadays. They’re better and better than they ever were before, but they just cannot capture what the human eye sees. God’s camera is pretty awesome. The ability to play around with Newton’s law, the fact that, you know, because gravity is overcome by the speed at which you’re going around the planet allows us to seem like we’re floating. And that’s a lot of fun to get to play with. You know, a body at rest stays at rest, a body in motion stays in motion. And for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. It makes all that stuff that you learned in middle school, if you learned it, or if you avoided it, it brings it to life for you. So that’s incredible.”

From The Reading List

Wall Street Journal: “Space Is Poised for Explosive Growth. Let’s Get It Right.” — “In the 19th century, urban planners wrangled the chaotic metropolises of Paris and New York into “planned cities,” turning warrens of streets into orderly grids, building sewage systems and transit lines, and allowing for new types of architecture, such as apartment buildings. Today, we face a similar inflection point in developing the nearest reaches of space.

“The next decade is set to bring explosive commercial growth and more private industry players to low-earth orbit, the area spanning 100 to 1,240 miles above the planet’s surface. SpaceX has proposed a satellite-based internet, and Planet is growing its fleet of Earth-imaging satellites. NASA plans a transition towards commercial management of the international space station. Several startups are developing low-earth orbit advertisements—logos or other designs, visible in the night sky, made from tiny, reflective satellites. Entrepreneurs are making plans for space hotels.

“Before we let rampant development go unchecked, we should consider how these efforts might conflict with or complement each other. We still have the chance to intentionally design humanity’s first ‘planned orbit.’”

MIT Media Lab: “Democratizing Access to Space” — “The Space Exploration Initiative’s founding mission is to rigorously, vigorously build out the technologies of our sci-fi space future while keeping our innovations and team as open and accessible as possible. When we say we’re ‘democratizing access to space exploration,’ what do we mean? In the context of our blue sky goal — to realize an inclusive, impactful — we approach democratization in four core ways. We are:

“1. Democratizing access by inviting and uniting new disciplines in our creative practice]

“2. Democratizing access by designing space tools, products, and experiences for all of us, not just the pinnacle of human talent embodied by astronauts.

“3. Democratizing access by developing hands-on, widely accessible opportunities to shape the technologies of our space future.

“4. Democratizing access through the celebration of new narratives through which we can tell the story of Space Exploration, writ large.”

The Verge: “This was the decade the commercial spaceflight industry leapt forward” — “Two years into the decade, on May 25th, 2012, a small teardrop-shaped capsule arrived at the International Space Station, packed with cargo and supplies for the crew living on board. Its resupply mission at the ISS wasn’t remarkable, but the vehicle itself was unique: it was a Dragon cargo capsule, owned and operated by a private company called SpaceX.

“Before 2012, only vehicles operated by governments had ever visited the ISS. The Dragon was the first commercial vehicle to dock with the station. The milestone was a crowning achievement for the commercial industry, which has permanently altered the spaceflight sector over the last 10 years.

“This decade, the space industry has seen a shift in the way it does business, with newer players looking to capitalize on different markets and more ambitious projects. The result has been an explosion of growth within the commercial sector. It’s allowing for easier access to space than ever before, with both positive and negative results. Such growth is providing the commercial space industry with lots of momentum coming into the 2020s, but it’s unclear if this pace is something that can be kept up.”

Axios: “NASA’s murky commercial space future” — “NASA’s plans to create a robust economy in low-Earth orbit where private spaceflight companies can flourish could eventually leave the agency’s astronauts stranded on Earth with nowhere to go.

“Why it matters: NASA hopes to play a lead role in developing a private spaceflight economy, including private sector astronauts. The agency sees this as a way to free it up to focus on farther afield goals like bringing humans back to the Moon and, eventually, to Mars.

“But if private industry takes over human spaceflight destinations in low-Earth orbit and funding and political support for NASA missions to the Moon or Mars dissipates, there may be no point in having a government-sponsored human spaceflight program at all.”

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