How commercial space exploration can be sustainable

is space exploration sustainable?

David Smith asks whether space exploration is sustainable in a talk he gave at TEDxPurdue.

Four years ago, I was a senior right here at Purdue in aerospace engineering, any aero, astro’s in the crowd. Oh boy this is going to look there’s a few, good. But no cheers though, that’s bad. But so as you engineering students, any engineering students in the crowd, you know that as senior year comes senior design project. Now there may be some people groaning under their breath but I loved senior design I loved every last second of it.

Our class’ project was actually to create a mission to Saturn’s moon Titan and like I said the. The project was amazing especially the Star Wars theme the mission simulation video I made for the final presentation. But even that wasn’t the best part of the entire semester for me. The best part was when we were paid a visit by the previous administrator of NASA, Michael Griffin. Now for us space nerds that is that’s a big deal. I was very excited. Now four years ago so, I don’t remember every last thing that he told us, I’m getting kind of old. But there was, there is one thing that ultimately stuck with me and it’s that one thing that’s led me to being here tonight.

Now this is right after the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo eleven moon landing. And he told us that if you look at any great event or invention in history whether it’s the development of the airplane or the telephone. Forty years down the line from that point. There have been amazing advancements in that area but if you look at human spaceflight. Not only have we not been any farther into space than the moon. We haven’t been back to the moon in over forty years. And we have gone backwards. We can’t even send our own astronauts into space anymore and that’s kind of sad if you think about it.

Now this about the same time period when you start hearing about companies like Space X. and Virgin Galactic and this brand spanking new commercial space industry. Private companies doing business in space and that really intrigued me could a private company really do what NASA couldn’t? Could a private industry create a sustainable presence in space? Now the answer to those two questions leads to the subtitle of my talk?

Put a Starbucks on Mars we’ll have a colony there in just ten years. I mean they’re all laughing, but to me it’s not that ridiculous. Private enterprise brings with it lots of benefits. And I have, believe it’s one of the most important keys to creating that sustainable presence in space but it isn’t the most important key. And that’s what I’m going to get into tonight. Flash forward to today I’m now a second year M.B.A. student.

Yep still here at Purdue and I’ve had an amazing opportunity to not only work in this new space industry, but meet all these very passionate people working at some of these companies. I’ve been able to analyze and research what it is they’re doing now that is allowing them to have some success, something that they haven’t had in the past. And I’ve determined what that number one key is, a lot of people would point to lowering the cost of launch. You know getting us cheaply from Earth into space.

I mean they won’t be wrong you know it cost four hundred and fifty million dollars per flight to send up the space shuttle when it was still running, four hundred and fifty million. And now that that’s the commission we are paying the Russians. Sixty million per seat to send our astronauts to the space station and private companies can help lower that cost that. They already have. For instance Space X is projecting launch costs as low as five million. By the time their technology becomes mature. That’s almost one hundred times less, private industry can bring with it lots of different benefits.

Capitalism brings with it competition, which brings constant innovation and advancement. Which helps lower the costs, which increases demand because it opens up that market to lots of different companies that wanted to go into space before but couldn’t afford to you know it helps to lower and mitigate risk. It gets society and communities more involved. It ultimately brings space down to Earth. I would agree that lowering launch costs is always been the key to opening up space. The let me ask you just one question. What will we do when we get there? I mean what’s the point of having a cheap ride somewhere if there’s nothing to do with the destination? I mean these companies need a profit they need a return from their space investment. And not just any return. They need a sustainable return to get this industry moving forward. But how do you make space give you that return.

The answer to that question lies with relevance, making space relevant to earth. The Apollo program in its day and age was incredibly successful because it had relevance. I mean they needed to beat the Russians you can’t get much more relevant than that and not just happy right. But it wasn’t a sustainable relevance, clearly. The satellite industry has been very successful, been around for decades because it has relevance. Satellites power our cell phones our T V’s are G.P.S..

I mean how many of you needed your G.P.S. to get here today. I’ll probably need mine to get home and I’ve been here for seven years. Now unfortunately the big thing that everyone hears about in commercial space is space tourism. Private companies sending paying customers up into space to have that little joyride. And it’s created of excitement obviously, it’s created some demand. Ashton Kutcher is going to space. That’s great. Lady Gaga has gone back to where she came from. But it doesn’t solve a problem we have here on Earth that doesn’t fill a need.

So therefore it’s not going to be sustainable, it’s not going to be the thing that drives the industry forward. But there are some areas we have here on earth that have problems that space could solve. For instance microgravity benefits field such as D.N.A. research pharmaceuticals, plant biology and agriculture, stem cell research, protein crystal growth, advanced manufacturing. They’re raw materials and resources in space that are rare here on Earth such as precious metals, water and solar energy of course are abundant in space. Transportation, communication, Education, these are all areas on earth that have problems that in some way only space could solve. And there are some companies targeting some of these problems right now. But they need to be the focus of the industry.

We need to start building solutions to problems like these not just spacecraft. By making space relevant to earth in many different ways, we build a strong foundation for the new space industry. A foundation that is unaffected by the changing interest of politicians it’s unaffected by the falling federal budget for space. Not affected by politics in general. It is solely affected by the passions and desires of the individuals and companies working towards these goals. This idea of relevance isn’t new. This is how companies here on earth work. They build products and services to target problems, solutions not spacecraft.

Now I’m getting really sick of all these naysayers, usually politicians in the media, when they say that there is no point in going into space. Why do we spend all these billions of dollars to send rovers to Mars? People like Shepard Smith here yelling at the NASA guy saying, what practical application could all this spacecraft possibly have. You know I want to be the NASA guy with the great comeback, “Hey Shepherd. I’m excited to be talking to you right now via satellite.” I mean satellites are great but I want to be able to turn to him and say. These are the benefits. These are the reasons why we go into space. You tell him that, that will really shut him up.

Now I don’t want you to think that I actually want to put a Starbucks on Mars. I mean that’d be pretty awesome right. Probably get the astronauts that pick me up in the morning before their spacewalk. But that’s not the point here. I don’t want you to think I’m just some business guy, who wants to ring a few bucks out the space. The money is not the end. It is just a means to the end. Once you build that strong foundation. Then you can more frequently and more easily focus on the fun nerdy things about space. You can explore space for the sheer excitement of it for the science. You can put up space hotels and take a weekend trip to Mars, to go space golf with your buddies.

So it takes a while for the ball to fall in space, I know it’s an easy chip. But without the foundation without that relevance, then the new space industry will just be another passing fascination another fad. It will be like the Apollo era which truly ignited the passions of a generation. But then just became a history lesson to the generation’s children. If we want to be able to reach out into space and expand our civilizations then we need to be able to put the power into the hands of those truly passionate about doing so. Not in the hands of some politician who’s never opened up a science textbook.

If we want to be able to venture out into the cosmos and stay there. Then we need to be able to make space relevant to earth. That is the number one key to sustainable space exploration.

– David Smith has worked in the commercial aviation industry and spent time in Washington, D.C. with a small organization helping promote the nascent commercial space industry to lawmakers. David is active both on and off campus with student event planning, intramural sports, world travelling, fiction writing, and everything in between.

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