Space is about to become a big deal – an extremely big deal. When most of us think of space, we immediately think of NASA, the government-controlled entity that put a man on the moon and a robot on Mars. For the past 55 years, NASA has been the only name in our country's space game. But that's changing. According to Richard Garriott, space entrepreneur and creator of the Ultima game series, we've begun a "new age of human spaceflight."
Garriott, himself the son of an astronaut, grew up assuming that traveling beyond Earth's stratosphere was something all adults did; as a kid, he was surrounded by people who did exactly that. When he grew up, he did go to space, but he took a different route than his father had: He paid the Russians $30 million to take him there.
Yes, that's a lot of money, but that was the year 2008, with the first private citizen having orbited the planet only seven years prior. Now, in 2013, we're about to see the price of private space travel take a nosedive, with some projections putting a ticket at less than $1 million within a decade.
The main issue that's currently keeping space travel prohibitively expensive is the cost of rockets. But with privately owned businesses quickly developing new designs for reusable rockets and more efficient spacecrafts, this issue is now receiving much broader attention.
Just take a look at NASA's Curiosity rover, which recently became the first robot to collect a rock sample from Mars (not to mention the first robot on Mars that you could follow on Twitter). Curiosity was designed by NASA engineers, but how did it get to the Red Planet in the first place? On commercially designed boosters.
Indeed, practical commercial participation in space travel isn't some mere pipe dream; it's already happening. In 2012, SpaceX, a privately owned company, delivered cargo to the International Space Station ... twice. The company won a contract from NASA in 2008 to replace its space shuttle's cargo transport with SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, and they're currently fitting the Dragon to transport astronauts as well. Fun fact: Elon Musk, CEO and founder of SpaceX, serves as its chief designer of space exploration technologies, co-founded Tesla Motors.
Garriott made video games, Musk made cars, and now they are two of today's leading voices in the field of space travel. Welcome to the new age.
Something else to consider that's a little closer to home: Many people who have orbited Earth – including Canadian Cmdr. Chris Hadfield, currently in orbit – claim to have experienced a cognitive shift known as the Overview Effect, which Garriott describes as "a huge physical reaction where, suddenly, [in] that moment, the Earth [becomes] finite and small." It's the result of circling the Earth every 90 minutes, watching not only weather patterns and sunrises, but also fires consuming the Amazon and pollution pouring into the oceans. Garriott estimates that if just 1% of the population experienced this effect, it could vastly change the manner with which the human race regards the planet.
And that's a pretty big deal, too.
Elon Musk Keynote
Saturday, March 9, 2pm
ACC, Exhibit Hall 5
The New Golden Age of Human Spaceflight
Monday, March 11, 11am
ACC, Ballroom D
Space Tech After NASA: Boom Times for Innovation?
Tuesday, March 12, 3:30pm
Omni Downtown, Capital Ballroom
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