For years, space flight has gotten little love. After the US thoroughly trounced the Soviet Union in the space race of the 1950s and 1960s, the motivation for pushing the bounds of human exploration began swiftly to fade. Yes, there has been some progress with unmanned exploration of Mars and the solar system, but no human has left low orbit in decades, let alone reached past the Moon.
Yet, that all seems to be changing at last, thanks to a newly energized private space industry.
Elon Musk, entrepreneur and evil genius, has helped bring sexy back to space travel. His company, SpaceX, has succeeded in developing rocket technology that in many ways surpasses the best governments can offer. This has resulted in SpaceX’s rise as a major player in the rocketry industry, with numerous lucrative contracts to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and satellite equipment into orbit.
Musk’s real goal, however, has always been to reach Mars. And in a presentation to last month’s International Astronautical Congress, he laid out his plan for colonizing the red planet. Mixing both real science (in the form of rocket design and engineering) and fanciful speculation, Musk succeeded in making a compelling, if not wholly realistic, pitch for near-term colonization of Mars. If he were to succeed, it would be the greatest triumph of private sector exploration (and perhaps private sector anything) ever achieved. The jury is out on whether these aims can or will be achieved. But Musk is certainly leading the way so far in thinking about how to do it.
Yet, Musk is not alone in setting lofty sights on the fourth planet. Dennis Muilenburg, the CEO of Boeing, gave a speech last week in which he stated that Boeing intends to be at the center of the new Space Age. Muilenburg believes that space tourism will be normal within 20 years, and that new aeronautics technologies will allow for frequent supersonic air travel around the world.
Muilenburg also threw down the gauntlet to Musk’s Mars dream. He is convinced Boeing will lead the way on long-range human space flight, and intends to beat SpaceX to Mars.
These are exciting times for space enthusiasts, free market enthusiasts, and those, like me, who get giddy over both. If the resources of private sector companies are directed at solving the many problems of getting people safely to Mars and beginning the work of permanent settlement, it will be a tremendous coup for the free enterprise system. Space has always been dominated by governments. But thanks to lack of political will and public interest, government programs have languished. Now is a time when the private sector can really show what it is made of.
The beauty of this budding new space race is that it is a contest between private individuals and groups to achieve the nigh-impossible. It is not about the posturing of nation-states or the power of governments. It is not about weaponizing space, or exploiting it for some sectional gain. It is about creating access to exploration, discovery, and new frontiers to settle without the direct interference of government authority. If the new space race can achieve even some of its lofty goals, lovers of liberty and all humanity ought to rejoice.
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