For the sake of Earth and humanity, it is time for private companies and governments to co-invest to expand human activity in low Earth orbit.
To some, this will seem like an absurd statement. How can human spaceflight solve difficult problems on Earth? What justifies public-private investment?
For more than 60 years, discretionary taxpayer dollars have funded both the exploration of space and the development of the technologies needed to travel and work there.
During this same period, the world’s population more than doubled. The ever-increasing demand for energy, materials, land and waste disposal has severely damaged the only biosphere we have. We know that the unique perspective of space is changing the way people view challenges and conflicts on Earth. And we know that space contains infinite energy, materials, and room to grow.
Exploring is just one of the four major activities to be undertaken in space. We can too to live space for ourselves as we do on vacation in exotic places on Earth. We can feat the locations, conditions and resources that the space has to offer. And finally, we can develop civilization in space where we find unlimited resources. While these four possible futures are interrelated, each is driven by unique goals, favors certain destinations, requires specialized technologies, and generates distinct benefits.
Human expansion in the solar system will require almost inconceivable investments, sustained for centuries. Only two of the futures are going down this path because their economic engines are fueled by mass markets: people who want to experience space travel and commercial enterprises looking to exploit what space has to offer. Together, these two markets will control the rate of growth of our future in space, so they should be at the center of the concerns of governments interested in promoting economic growth. Fortunately, both markets can take off in low earth orbit.
The International Space Station, several Russian space stations before it, Skylab, and now Chinese space stations as well, have all established genuine markets for permanent national presence and scientific research in orbit. It is by exploring borders that governments create options. But realizing these options requires the creation of commercial enterprises in the wake of exploration, made possible by favorable public infrastructure and regulations. Now, with the right conditions, commercial interests are ready to build on the foundations of government in low earth orbit by investing in three rich orbital markets.
First, sovereign nations around the world – those already active in space, but also newcomers who have never had easy access to space – will pursue an “orbital address.” Nations will aim to position themselves on this visible frontier of technology and commerce. And basic research sponsored by NASA and other agencies will continue.
Second, a wide range of business interests will experiment with and seek to take advantage of the unique orbital environment: high vacuum, containerless processing, no convection, high energies, and proximity to home. The latent opportunities are endless for technological development, large-scale manufacturing, Earth imaging, data processing, advertising, media, sports and games.
Third, private space travel is now real. More people will experience the new sensations of spaceflight: accelerated launch, decelerated reentry, free fall for days or weeks and the dominant and ever-changing view of Earth. Imagine trivializing the experience of sixteen sunrises and sunsets a day, while flying over 90% of humanity. Adventurers first, then orbit residents will visit and occupy space destinations.
Why hasn’t all this happened already?
First, we need a method to fly payloads and people routinely, safely, and more affordably. Soon there will be two reusable and private heavy-duty launch systems and four reusable space vehicles. Second, we need an accessible orbital destination where entrepreneurs can test their designs and seek their fortunes – a place that fosters competition. Soon there will be a commercially developed, owned and operated space station designed with these markets in mind. Third, we need established space research clients to sign long-term use agreements as key tenants to build investor confidence. NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations program should be funded to develop housing tailored to its particular needs and structured to enter into long-term agreements. Fourth, we need private capital to make sustained investments with the patience to wait for late returns from emerging markets.
As the founder of the space architecture field, I worked for half a century to standardize space flight. Space is the ultimate environment in which we can grow and prosper. It is also an area that reveals – viscerally – the limits and interdependence of our existence on Earth.
Humanity needs a space destination close to home. A place in low earth orbit where guests can experience space simply by purchasing a ticket, with all essential services and concierge amenities expertly and safely provided. A place where they can learn to feel at home in this hostile environment, to experiment and invent new products that the markets have not yet imagined. A place where people all over the world can gaze in wonder through vast windows through the emptiness of space. A place with an incomparable view of our fragile existence on our only home – our blue origin.
An orbital address will be where it all begins.
Brent Sherwood is a space architect with 33 years of experience in the space industry. He is Senior Vice President of Advanced Development Programs for Blue Origin, which develops systems for space transportation, space mobility, space destinations and lunar permanence. Blue Origin’s mission is to develop infrastructures that allow millions of people to live and work in space for the benefit of the Earth.