Vice President Mike Pence may have promised to make America’s space program “great again” and to make sure Americans were the next humans on the Moon, but robots may beat the U.S. to it.
“We will ensure that the next man, and the first woman, on the moon will be American astronauts,” Pence said earlier this month at NASA’s Ames Research Center. The promise has become a familiar refrain in his speeches.
NASA plans to send astronauts to the moon in 2024 as a part of the Artemis program, but China or robots may get there before that.
One robot project announced last month is called Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), aiming to explore the quantity and location of water ice. SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, Ceres Robotics and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems have joined the NASA program, Space.com reports.
Increasingly, it’s private companies and non-U.S. government space programs that are making inroads into space exploration and commercial tourism.
“A lot of (space exploration) has been spurred on by nationalism — the Cold War was a huge motivator for NASA,” says Peter Ward, the author of The Consequential Frontier: Challenging the Privatization of Space, in an interview with Karma. Ward also notes the Shuttle disasters made NASA more risk-averse and weakened America’s public enthusiasm and government funding for space.
“All of that makes it an ideal time for the private sector to pick up the baton,” he says.
As federal support for NASA has declined, the agency has turned to private companies.
The latest announcements are examples of “public-private partnerships” that have increasingly come to characterize space exploration and breakthroughs.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is the private company, after 15 years of trying, that is the closest to taking commercial tourists to space, within Earth’s orbit.
“All of that makes it an ideal time for the private sector to pick up the baton.”
Boeing HorizonX Ventures invested $20 million in Virgin Galactic earlier this year, in a sign of more traditional giants pooling resources with newer, ambitious founders keen for the next breakthrough.
An increasing number of players in space tech has brought down the costs. At the same time, investors like Chad Anderson from Space Angels are more comfortable with risks, Ward notes.
“He (Anderson) knows launch costs will come down, the launch prices are now transparent,” Ward says. “Now you can build a business plan because what you can build upfront. That was a huge enabler of smaller companies.”
Space Angels has invested in more than 20 companies including Astrobotic, which is aiming to bring communications services to the moon, and LeoLabs, which tracks space debris, according to the company site.
Trump’s Space Agenda
While the Trump administration has been enthusiastic to embrace the space agenda, progress has been scant.
“It was this big shiny object they felt they could get a big win out of — Humans to Mars or back to the moon,” Ward says. “The administration quickly realized that it’s a lot harder than they thought it would be.”
‘It’s So Bad’
Even with high-level, verbal government support and enthusiasm of ambitious space tech startups, there are still plenty of risks and challenges like lack of regulation.
“It’s a really good question because it’s so bad. The country that you launch from is liable for what you do in space,” Ward explains. “The private company will be held liable by the country. The problem is that enforcing that is almost impossible.”
Ward and other space experts believe that nothing will be done until there is a major accident.
In the meantime, there is little visibility into other competitors like China.
“China doesn’t talk about its progress very much, but the fact that they landed a probe (a robot) on the far side of the moon shows they’ve actually exceeded what major space nations have done,” Ward notes. “That was the first time they’ve done something that nobody has done before.”
China made the first-ever landing on the far side of the moon earlier this year, enticed by water and other natural resources.
With the increasing number of private players competing with nations in space exploration, the world is making progress and slowly democratizing the space race. Still, there are confusing regulatory frameworks and a lack of data about debris in space and what happens when things don’t go according to plan.
“It’s much cheaper to go into space now. And countries are taking advantage of that. That’s been a really good thing for smaller countries,” Ward acknowledges. “Any country can just book a ticket on the next SpaceX launch — you don’t have to build your own rocket.”