Bigelow Aerospace has developed a new modular space station, which is expected to be taken up on the Dragon rocket manufactured by SpaceX. Meanwhile Elon Musk’s company plans to start running commercial space flights in the next few years.
During the Cold War the space race between the two superpowers was a major theme, as both a symbol of power and a means of intimidation. Sputnik 1, launched by the USSR in 1957, was the first satellite to go into orbit around Earth, firing the starting gun for the race to conquer space. Four years later, the Russian Yuri Gagarin was the first man to fly in space. The United States repeated the exploit with Explorer 1, and ran the Apollo programmes from 1961 to 1975, culminating in the iconic Apollo 11 mission in 1969, which put the first man on the moon. During that era, space was very much the exclusive preserve of governments and state organs. However, space missions are now finally moving into the private sphere, and the tech and web giants are looking to grab a slice of the action. When it comes to innovation, space would appear to be the last frontier. However, companies’ high-flying ambitions vary radically. While Elon Musk is planning to go all the way into deep space, offering commercial flights to Mars within a few decades, others are looking to use high-altitude aircraft to provide unlimited connectivity between objects and devices here on Earth.
Space ambitions vary
In a recent interview, Elon Musk explained his belief that “there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen.” Musk believes that the Internet and space are now the key areas in the transition from the 20th century to the 21st. Having made his fortune by selling online payment platform PayPal, which he co-founded, to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion, the South African entrepreneur then embarked on his space adventure, founding SpaceX that same year. The company’s stated mission is to make space transport technology available at low cost. Musk reckons his company could be in a position to take people to Mars during his lifetime.
Meanwhile Google and Facebook have shown interest in aerospace, but their aim is to continue expanding the ecosystem around their services rather than arranging commercial space flights. While taking an interest in space-based solutions, both web-and-data giants are focusing on improving connectivity on Earth. Google acquired Titan Aerospace, which makes solar-powered drones, in February this year. These unmanned aircraft can fly continuously at a height of 20 kilometres for five years, bringing the Internet to far-flung places with poor connections. Mark Zuckerberg officially launched his ‘Connectivity Lab’ recently with a similar aim. The Connectivity Lab employs specialist aeronautics engineers, notably a team from Ascenta, a newly-acquired UK company which specialises in designing high altitude aeroplanes, plus two experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and National Optical Astronomy Laboratory. The company is also working on a laser technology designed to connect up different pieces of space equipment.
Diversifying services, teaming up with NASA
The web giants are building their capabilities in this kind of advanced technology as a means of connecting up the world and at the same time finding new outlets for their array of services. This ‘future connectivity’ may be about as far as they can go in practical terms. However, the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is now using technology developed by Google under its Tango project for flying robots known as Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES), which are designed to search out and feed vital real-time information to astronauts in flight. Meanwhile the fact that SpaceX is teaming up with NASA demonstrates that Musk’s vision is no mere Hollywood science fantasy. In September this year, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX (and aerospace pioneer Boeing) to develop commercial systems for space crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS). Not to be outdone, Virgin Galactic, spearheaded by iconic UK entrepreneur Richard Branson, aims to make space flights available to ordinary people with the SpaceShipTwo shuttle, which has already been cleared by NASA to transport payloads.