Last week was hard for the commercial Space industry. An Orbital Sciences Antares rocket headed to the International Space Station exploded shortly after launch. Then Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two, the first craft built specifically for space tourism, crashed in the desert after firing its main rocket engine, killing the co-pilot and severely injuring the pilot. What followed was a media flurry surrounding the "deep uncertainty" of the commercial space industry, and this article explaining why Virgin Galactic is a apparently a waste of time. So...listen up people.
Space exploration is one of the most important endeavors our civilization will undertake. If we are unable to extend our reach into the solar system (and beyond), then humanity is destined for extinction. If humanity cannot develop a method to reliably track and redirect asteroids, we will go extinct. If we find a way not to destroy this planet we call home, and we decide to simply enjoy our time here, we will go extinct. Earth has an expiration date. Yes, it is (hopefully) true that that date is very, very far into the future, but it is a date regardless. Ultimately we need that time to develop the technologies that will allow us to meet the insanely difficult challenge we are up against. But we have to get started today, and we must keep moving forward, forever. This is one movement that cannot end. It is the only way to ensure the continuation of our species. The hoard of billionaires investing in space exploration are not doing it because it is some hobby, as the media likes to claim. They do it because they view the world on a longer horizon than only their short lives. They see a civilization with a much greater destiny.
Virgin Galactic's goal is to commercialize space travel through selling tickets to wealthy individuals. This is very similar to Space Adventures, founded by Eric Anderson in 1998, which helps coordinate visits to the ISS by private citizens. Space Adventures still operates today and Eric Anderson has gone on to co-found Planetary Resources, one of the first private space mining ventures. Saying that commercial space travel should not involve the sale of tickets to wealthy individuals is one of the most short-sighted statements you can make. ANY activity that creates a sustainable business around space travel of any kind is worthwhile. Why? Do you really think Virgin Galactic has the ultimate goal of "being a roller-coaster ride for the rich and famous"? Of course not. That is the same as saying SpaceX's ultimate goal is to put a plant on mars. It is not the goal, it is just the beginning of a much greater journey. The hard part about commercial space activity is developing a business case around something that is incredibly expensive, dangerous, and difficult. We are just now beginning to understand what these industries are and how they will generate a profit for investors. Virgin Galactic focuses on selling tickets to wealthy individuals because this is the path of least resistance. It is a great place to start, and this is no less noble than the other commercial space endeavors currently underway. Space-capitalism works just like terrestrial-capitalism. You must start somewhere. Space tourism will play an important role in the commercial space economy for the simple fact that it will be one (of many) economic drivers that enables future space exploration technology. Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic will continue to push the envelope to make the impossible...possible. Having a rocketplane in humanity's technological arsenal is a good idea, regardless of how we get there and how it is funded.
Space exploration creates incredible business opportunities both here at home and in deep space. History has proven that frontiers and exploration generate waves of technological advancement. The American western expansion was followed by the greatest explosion in innovation the world had ever seen. In a short 100 years after this frontier was closed,we saw the electrification of cities, telephones and radios were released, and aviation grew from the Wright Brothers to the safe commercial airline travel. We saw the introduction of interplanetary spacecraft, antibiotics, computers, television and nuclear power. A frontier is a core component of human advancement. Unfortunately, there are no terrestrial frontiers left on this planet, we have colonized the majority of the planet. Looking to history again, we know that civilizations without frontiers fall into stagnation, decline and resource wars. This idea lies at the very heart of commercial space exploration. Having a lofty goal and an unexplored place to expand into is the deepest driver of innovation that exists. Along the way, we will develop new technologies that will enrich humanity on a day-to-day basis. We will set the bar higher than we ever have, and we will find incredible business opportunities along the way. Just look at the moon race, the number of technological spin-offs that resulted from the program is staggering. If a technology is cordless, fireproof, automated, or lightweight and strong, there is a good chance it was born at NASA.
So tuck yourself in, this is going to be a long journey. The commercial space industry is here to stay. It is led and staffed by people who want to leave a mark on civilization itself and literally reach for the stars. They will not back down due to failures, and we cannot let them. To ensure the survival of our species, we must press on.