Since NASA ended its shuttle program back in 2011, flight enthusiasts have been looking to commercial companies to take up the mantle and make space transportation a reality for the general public. While there has been talk about colonizing Mars and supporting a space tourism industry in recent years, commercial travel is still very much in its infancy. How is it expected to advance and evolve in the 2020s?
The 2010s saw commercial space travel take a giant leap forward. Prior to 2012, the International Space Station (ISS) was solely the domain of government-operated vehicles, but that changed when Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, arrived with its Dragon cargo capsule. This marked a shift from a private space industry centered on tech areas such as defense and aviation.
Secure World Foundation’s director of program planning Brian Weeden recently noted that the government was pretty much the sole driver of funding and activity “under the old model.” He added: “Almost all the money would come from the government, and the government would have almost complete control over what was built.”
Race for space
SpaceX personifies the new age of commercial space, where a number of launch providers have tried to make travel into the unknown more accessible. These companies include Rocket Lab, founded in New Zealand, and the Washington-based Blue Origin.
The competition has been a key driver for innovation, and expert Bill Roberson believes that it has kick-started the space race after a few decades of relative stagnation. This points to an exciting decade, especially as the number of average weekly orbital launches from the US, as well as China, Russia and Japan, continues to increase.
Roberson notes: “Private, commercial spaceflight. Even lunar exploration, mining, and colonization – it’s suddenly all on the table, making the race for space today more vital than it has felt in years.”
Voyager Space Holdings
The renewed interest and competition in space has also made it a smart outlet for investment, which could spur further advances and milestones in both the burgeoning commercial sector and national security arena. Voyager Space Holdings, headed by founder and CEO Dylan Taylor, is a holding company that focuses specifically on acquiring and supporting hi-tech space companies.
Taylor believes that his philosophy centered on bringing the best capabilities of different companies under one banner will provide a platform for innovation to flourish. Being able to work at scale will also finally enable smaller companies to compete with bigger competitors, which is potentially transformative for space travel in general.
SpaceX’s Moon voyage
A major event on the horizon for commercialized space travel is the first-ever tourist voyage to the Moon, which is planned by SpaceX in 2023. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa will be the first civilian passenger to venture near the location where Neil Armstrong once uttered his “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” speech more than 50 years ago.
Maezawa, a 44-year-old fashion mogul, recently set up a “planned match-making event” with the view to sharing the experience with a significant other. The event is sure to garner huge publicity, both in the run-up to launch and during the trip, which will take place in the SpaceX Starship. The success of that event will surely have some impact on how commercialized space travel develops during the remainder of the decade.
Boeing’s moon lander
Boeing also plans on shaping the industry during the coming years as it now has the capacity for space travel after receiving a contract from NASA. The aerospace giant recently unveiled its ‘Fewest Steps to the Moon’ program, with the aim of building a lander on the Moon in order to shuttle humans back and forth. It wants these plans to come to fruition by 2024.
NASA opens up ISS
NASA recently announced that private individuals would be able to visit the ISS for the first time in 2020 in another move that appears to herald the start of space tourism in earnest. It is unlikely to be affordable for the masses in the foreseeable future though as just a single day’s visit to the ISS is rumored to cost around $35,000 per day.
Those high costs and uncertainty about whether commercial space can really hit the mass market mean that it will probably be hard to judge its success before the mid-2020s. Richard Branson once said that flying tourists would be commonplace by 2008, but the dates for commercial flights continue to be pushed back.
It is an exciting time for the commercial industry, especially with visionaries such as Taylor, Musk and Jeff Bezos buying into space travel, and it certainly has the potential to come on leaps and bounds during the next decade. However, the success of planned flights and other factors will be a key determining factor in how exactly everything unfolds before 2030.