NASA’s Curiosity rover has already completed its greatest mission: to reignite excitement on Earth about space flight and science. The Mars Science Laboratory has generated a renewed thirst, worldwide, for more knowledge about our galaxy and beyond. Now, the InSight Mars lander is scheduled to launch in 2016.
The InSight mission is yet another feather in NASA’s cap, but it’s too little and too late. We have an entire universe to explore. It is as if this is a replay of the 1970s. Back then, the Apollo missions to the Moon raised everyone’s hopes of far-reaching space travel. We dreamed of manned missions to Mars and Jupiter. But nothing much more happened.
Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. His other academic appointments include Harvard, Duke and Emory Universities as well as the University of California Berkeley.
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The good news is that, now, NASA may not have to realize my generation’s long-held dreams all on its own. Here’s why: The cost of technology has dropped exponentially. What was once the exclusive realm of the government is now open to entrepreneurs.
Witness the success of the Dragon spacecraft in May — when it successfully docked with the international space station and returned with cargo. This vessel was built by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), a company that entrepreneur Elon Musk founded in 2002. According to SpaceX, the capsule was built from scratch in just 4 and a half years at a cost of around $300 million. SpaceX has constructed launch sites at Vandenberg, Cape Canaveral and Kwajalein, and a manufacturing facility in Hawthorne, California. The total cost of everything, including the Dragon launch, was $800 million. Compare this to the estimated $200 billion that NASA’s Space Shuttle program cost. That’s an average of $1.5 billion for every shuttle flight.
SpaceX isn’t the only private company shooting for the stars. In 2004, Scaled Composites, a startup founded by entrepreneur Burt Rutan, launched a spacecraft called SpaceShipOne to the edge of space. This was the result of ten years of effort and an investment of more than $20 million by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. It won a $10 million prize from the X Prize Foundation (which was founded by my friend Peter Diamandis, who also founded Singularity University—where I head innovation and strategy). Billionaire Sir Richard Branson acquired this technology and founded a company called Virgin Galactic. Branson’s company will offer suborbital flights to private individuals on a craft called SpaceShipTwo starting in 2013. Tickets will cost $200,000 and reservations are currently available (there is only one class of service, however).
Entrepreneurs are also looking at mining other planets and asteroids for minerals that are rare on Earth. One company whose progress I’ve been watching is Moon Express. It is on track to land a spacecraft on the Moon in 2014. Its first lander will carry scientific and commercial payloads to the Moon. Subsequent missions aim to have robots extract resources from the lunar soil and bring them back to Earth. The company’s founder Bob Richards (a founding trustee of Singularity University) said this past weekend during an alumni event at Singularity University that these planetary resources “are essential to humanity’s future on Earth and in space.”