Satellite Technology Feature Article
Commercial Space Exploration Plans Bloom
By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor
SpaceX (News - Alert) and Tesla founder Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars and a commercial effort to return to the Moon by 2020 plans to announce its roadmap this week. The surge in private entrepreneurs looking to travel through the solar system is bound to affect NASA and the aerospace industry.
Musk has often stated he'd like to retire on Mars once his kids grow up, but right now there's no way to get there. Speaking before the Royal Aeronautical Society on November 16, 2012, the founder of PayPal (News - Alert) discussed his vision to establish a colony on the moon, ultimately reaching 80,000 or more people.
Step one means building a fully usable rocket to move payloads from Earth into orbit, an engineering challenge, which Musk believes can be mastered over the next five to six years. He believes a reusable Falcon 9 first stage may be able to fly "in a year or two." Building a fully reusable launch system drives down the cost of payloads and people into orbit, opening up new applications and new industries.
An initial colony on Mars would consist of about 10 people and plenty of equipment, including power plants, gear to mine water ice and convert Mars’ atmosphere into methane rocket fuel, housing, and greenhouses to food crops. Once a sustainable industrial base is established through more trips, less equipment would go out and be replaced by more people. Ultimately, Musk believes he can get the price of a Mars colony ticket down to a sweet spot of $500,000 -- not out of reach for many people willing to save up for an adventure.
Going to Mars at that price will require SpaceX to build a new, bigger and total rocket with a liquid oxygen/liquid methane engine .The company hasn't officially committed to building at this point in time. Musk believes a Mars colony can be established within 20 years, so there's a lot of work ahead for SpaceX.
Closer to home in both space and time, Golden Spike is expected to lay out its plans for commercial astronauts on the Moon by 2020 on December 6, 2012 at a 2 p.m. ET event at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. Rumors floating about on the Internet suggest the company has signed a deal with SpaceX for use of its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle to carry a new-design lander with the capability to deliver both cargo and up to four passengers to the lunar surface. Bigelow Aerospace, maker of inflatable space structures, is likely to have involvement in the venture to provide modules for a man-tended outpost.
The Golden Spike project may have a total budget outline of $5 billion to $10 billion, with manned expeditions costing $2 billion. Financial and technical backers are also expected to be revealed during the Thursday conference.
Commercial operations to the moon would likely provide significant opportunities for scientists to get instruments put on the moon. A radio telescope on the far side of the moon has been long desired by astronomers. Confirmation and investigation of ice deposits at the lunar poles is likely to be high on a to-do list for commercial operations, both for scientific and profitable use.
If one or both of these ventures moves beyond the wild-eyed conceptualization and pretty videos into reality, benefits would accrue to the aerospace industry and STEM education. The aerospace industry cannot depend upon defense spending in the coming decade to bring profits, but will have shift to meet the needs of more demanding private ventures. Longer-term, space-faring ventures will need plenty of engineers and scientists to build and install structures on the Moon, Mars and wherever else a search for adventure and profits takes them.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman