Sunday, August 21

Privatising Space Exploration

(Oh hello post number 200! Here are some thoughts on private companies taking over space exploration. It's mostly thoughts, so do correct me if I am making any blatant mistakes).

Astrophysics and space flight engineeering makes a very fertile field for new discoveries. Pushed to the edge of our earthly boundaries, scientists are facing challenges that were previously inconceivable to us; how materials and organic entities behave in microgravity, how to withstand extreme pressure and heat, and how to escape our earth's incarcerating, gravitational pull towards the ground. The solutions to these problems have benefited our everyday lives, perhaps more than we are aware of. Mobile phones were based on technology developed when the Apollo astronauts became dependent on long distance telecommunication. Velcro tape, nutrients in baby food, the grills in the road that prevent hydroplaning and water filtering techniques are also offsprings of space engineering. (That the ballpoint pen was invented by NASA to write in space when the Russians used pencils is, however, a myth. Early american astronauts used pencils as well, but when the easily smudged graphite became inconvenient, a high pressure "space pen" was invented. This is not quite the same as our everyday ballpoint pens). These discoveries have been made available as they trickled down from a field of experimental ventures, to kitchens, pockets and sneakers all over the world.

Over the past few years, and noticeably once the monopoly on lower earth orbit was lifted, NASA has increasingly outsourced its business to external companies. In fact, NASA has always employed contractors, but now the space above us is exposed to economic competition. One potentially chilling side of this is that turning space flight into an economic venture where competition is the propellant may force new, innovative technology to remain behind closed doors. Keeping industrial secrets to gain advantages over other companies could hypothetically end in raging patent wars, inhibit free research, and prevent useful inventions from trickling down from orbit to regular huts and shackles. In a hostile fiscal climate, expensive space exploration requires some pretty solid justification. For instance, is the $1.1 billion spacecraft Juno, which is amongst other things carrying a $3.8 million camera that has no specific scientific purpose, really worth it? Something NASA frequently points out in its press releases is that this and other planetary probes aid in answering the fundamental questions of who we are, and where we came from. This may be the most easily recognisable scientific motivation for "common folks", as there really isn't a growing public concern about the status of Jupiter's core or how much oxygen there is in its atmosphere. In their speeches at the Juno Tweetup, NASA administrator Charlie Bolden and chief scientist at the NASA headquarters, Waleed Abdalati, capitalised on the "burning, burning human desire to explore", to take leave of our Earth habitats and answer the fundamental questions we have harboured since the dawn of collective consciousness. Science is energising, fun, and an exciting field that provides job opportunities for young people. But curiousity in itself is an abstract justification. The likes of microelectronics, weather satellites and water filters are however tangible and concrete, and continue to be a prerequisite for continued government funding.

Public interest in space exploration, and with it government funding, is dwindling. The small town of Titusville, located on the other side of the river of Kennedy Space Center has been disintegrating since the end of the Apollo programme. The city is facing another bout of abandonment as the space shuttle programme has been cancelled. Thousands of technicians are losing their jobs – people who have already worked for years in privately owned companies supplying NASA with launch services and maintenance and on the space shuttle for their entire lives. Two companies currently providing launch services, USA (United Space Alliance) and ULA (United Launch Alliance) are joint ventures of famed warfare and aircraft suppliers Boeing and Lockheed Martin. About 9000 (?) people have been laid off since the space shuttle programme ended in early July. One technician ended his own life, depressed by the prospects of losing his job, by throwing himself off the launch pad tower before the last flight of Endeavour, STS-134, in early 2011. The earlier shuttle workers were equipped with decent severance packages, but after vehicle specific work spanning three decades may require extensive re-education to return to work. Moreover returning the space shuttle to flight is not an option, as it is already long overdue for retirement. It is only tragically appropriate that the pieces of the disintegrated Columbia that my Texas pen pal would find in her back yard were already then, in my teenage mind, historical relics.

On the bright side, privatising space flight that has previously been under state monopoly may contribute entirely new solutions for low Earth orbit (LEO) transportation. In his report on the Challenger accident in 1986, physicist and Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman calls for an outsourcing of activities, for an agency that is run by bureaucrats rather than scientists and engineers and marred by chasing perfection to guarantee continued government funding. He claims the space shuttle was rife with expensive engineering mistakes already in its earliest phases, compromising safety in the process. Independent engineers can work out cheaper and more environmentally sound ways to put Earth objects and subjects into space, and refine fully reusable spacecrafts, which is undoubtedly beneficial. Meanwhile, manned space flight continues in Russia as far as servicing the ISS goes, and is explored in newly born space states such as China and India. The Russian federal space agency Roskosmos recently announced it will reduce its spending on manned space flight, but future American ISS crew members will still be catching rides on the Soyuz, at a price of approximately $55 million per head.

So, in absence of humans, we launch our interplanetary placeholders – small probes. Juno is on her way to Jupiter, and she is set to become the fastest man made object in history, reaching 160,000 km/h after her Earth flyby gravity assist in 2013. She is powered entirely on top of the crop solar cell panels, handpicked by the Juno engineers. Although they can power up to 19,000 W on earth, they reach only 400 W in polar orbit around Jupiter, less than it takes to power a hairdryer, and 200 W of that alone is spent on keeping the spacecraft warm. Imagine these solar cell panels in time becoming widely available on Earth? Let's hope these providers of technology are willing to be democratic, and share "the pleasure of finding things out" (as Richard Feynman puts it) as well as their revolutionary outcomes, with the rest of us. Perhaps space flight will never again attain the same splendour as in its Apollo heyday, but this may be a healthy sign of our appropriation of space exploration as an integral part of our no-longer earthbound society; a step towards making space and accompanying technology available for all.


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  2. Well now and then I land on this site, and now I see that you're a bit of a space geek. On the private side of space ventures, are you familiar with what Space X has been up to?

  3. T.K. Tortch: I think Space X's projects are really interesting, and it's admirable that they're "picking up the slack" in the post-shuttle era so quickly. Thanks for the link! I unfortunately missed a talk by Elon Musk in my hometown only two days ago.

    (And thank you for reading!)

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