Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin reached space in 2021, and SpaceX sent an all-civilian crew on an orbital journey around the planet.
2021 witnessed milestones in space travel, with three billionaires bolting into space and kickstarting a commercial space race.
The billionaires involved include Jeff Bezos, who is behind Blue Origin, Richard Branson, who heads Virgin Galactic/Virgin Orbit, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
The private industry space race of the 21st century started with rockets sent to the mesosphere and thermosphere, orbital rocket launches and suborbital tourist spaceflights.
Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are in the same market: suborbital space tourism.
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In July 2021, Richard Branson became the first non-professional astronaut to complete a suborbital spaceflight.
Jeff Bezos made a short journey to space nine days later, in the first crewed flight of his rocket ship, New Shepard.
Two minutes into the flight, New Shepard’s capsule separated from its rocket and continued upwards towards the Karman Line — the most widely recognised boundary of space, that lies 100 kilometres from the earth’s surface.
Elon Musk and SpaceX
SpaceX, the first private company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft and the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station, was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk.
The company developed its first orbital launch vehicle, the Falcon 1, in 2005 but its first three launches, between 2006 and 2008, all resulted in failures.
Things started to turn around when the first successful launch was achieved shortly after on the fourth attempt in September 2008.
In 2017, SpaceX achieved a 45% global market share for awarded commercial launch contracts and by March 2018, SpaceX had more than 100 launches on its manifest with about US$12 billion in contract revenue.
Falcon 9 rocket and SpaceX building.
SpaceX, recently valued at US$100 billion, was awarded an exclusive NASA contract in April 2021 to put US astronauts on the Moon for the first time since 1972.
In September 2021, SpaceX executed a three-day orbital mission around the Earth featuring four civilians on Inspiration4.
The Inspiration4 team launched on a capsule from Florida and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean three days later.
Musk, who was named Time’s Person of the Year, also has big plans for Mars: to build a self-sustaining city with solar-powered hydroponic farms where humans can permanently live, 34 million miles away from Earth.
He told Time that: “The next really big thing is to build a self-sustaining city on Mars and bring the animals and creatures of Earth there.”
Spinoffs from space technology
While there are differing opinions on the benefits of the billionaire space race, space exploration and research has helped develop and advance many spinoff technologies over the years.
Infrared ear thermometers are a derivative of NASA’s technology to measure the temperature of stars and planets using infrared astronomy technology.
Deep space exploration missions use digital image processing technology developed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
JPL subsequently adapted this technology to help create modern CAT scanners and radiography.
Modern laptops use technology that originated from Shuttle Portable Onboard Computer (SPOC), which was developed in the early 1980s for NASA’s space shuttle program.
Many other products including wireless headsets, LED lighting, portable cordless vacuums, freeze-dried foods, memory foam and scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses have all benefited from space technology research and development, according to Aldo Spadoni, president of Aerospace Imagineering.
New methods of sustaining human life in space
NASA and other government space agencies continue to focus on solving more difficult problems involving space exploration such as deep space capabilities and improving human life support systems.
Having said that, NASA has placed many of the challenges of commercialising space to the private space industry with the hopes of developing innovations that help improve human living conditions in space.
The billionaire space race and the commercialisation of space in the private sector are expected to lead to reducing flight costs, developing new methods of sustaining human life in space, and may provide the opportunity for more tourists to experience low Earth orbit travel in the future.
The rationale for investment in space exploration has witnessed a dramatic shift since the 20th-century space race.
Space exploration of the late 20th century was driven by competition between the Soviet Union and the US to achieve the first spaceflight and to land a human on the Moon.
Now, the private sector has started investing in space exploration in a major way alongside governments.
The private sector is keen on exploring the potential of space colonisation as a means of ensuring the survival of human civilisation given a planetary disaster.
It can be argued that colonising other planets allows for the dispersal of humans and thus increases the likelihood of survival given a planetary disaster.
Mining in space
The availability of additional resources that can be mined from space could also potentially benefit humans.
These resources can help move high polluting industries to space, reducing the emissions on earth and ultimately lead to finding cleaner energy sources.
NASA has taken some baby steps toward this goal by awarding contracts to four companies to extract small amounts of lunar regolith by 2024, effectively beginning the era of commercial space mining.