Gary Martin is the Vice President for North American operations for the International Space University, but before that he was a senior advisor to the Luxembourg Space Agency and spent more than 30 years at NASA, advising on space science missions, advanced technology development, and human spaceflight.
He explains the significance of the recent SpaceX launch, what private space travel can do that governments cant, and why we need sci-fi to inspire our engineers.
In the past, national space agencies have built and launched the spaceships that carried astronauts into space. Recently, we saw a private company, SpaceX, launch American astronauts to the International Space Station on behalf of NASA for the first time ushering in a new era of private space travel.
SpaceXs Crew Dragon successfully docked with the International Space Station on 1 June 2020 NASA
Were starting a whole new chapter in humanitys quest to move off this planet, to actually start things weve seen in science fiction.
The SpaceX launch, although it was still bought by government funds, is a huge change. Its something Ive been waiting for all my career in that before, only governments had the kind of money, could take the liability, and actually had permission to go into space and explore this frontier.
Now weve got a commercial company that has shown it can take an astronaut up to space into low Earth orbit.
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There are a couple of private space station companies out there [for example Axiom Space and Bigelow Aerospace] but until now you had no way to get there, because you would have had to get a government to sell you a seat and the governments have other priorities and seats are precious.
Now SpaceX could sell you a trip to your private space station. And if all these countries are going to the Moon, there are a number of companies that are interested in providing communications around the Moon, providing resources and fuel and water and power.
Theres all kinds of economic possibilities in the next couple of decades that are now empowered. This is very exciting; this is a milestone that we will look back on and say, This is when it started; this is when it really took off.
Gary Martin in 2004 when he held the role of Space Architect at NASA David Paul Morris/Getty Images
At the beginning of the Internet, you would never ever think of what a role it plays in our entire world right now. This is what I believe space is going to be like.
So how do you start that? Well, this is where governments absolutely do work. It was NASA putting so much money into SpaceX that allowed it to have the capability to take humans into space. Now, SpaceX can amortise [pay off] that investment to give anyone a ride, if they pay the price.
And thats the difference, the government would never have that capability, theyre not going to become an operational activity. But SpaceX is a private company that has motivations to do private things in space.
Read more about Moon bases:
In Luxembourg, we looked at where are the places you could make money in space. Well, its very expensive to take things from the Earth and use them in space. So, if you assume that governments are going to the Moon, you need to make everything you want for civilisation in space at some point.
At these Moon bases, youre going to want to not only be out there doing science, exploring or having tourism there, youre going to want to go have a beer at night, youre going to want to have a pizza, youre going to want a comfortable, safe room.
SpaceX expect that one day their Starship could carry passengers to the Moon SpaceX/Flickr
All of these materials and things and ideas have to be constructed by people in businesses. So the business opportunities at some point, maybe two decades or so from now, are actually limitless.
Once theres a foot hold of people on the Moon, then people will be going to Mars. Well learn how to live safely, well learn how to do things in space. Theres a lot to learn, and theres a lot of business opportunities in learning those things.
Every day I read a number of clippings to try to stay current and Ill tell you, theres a new launcher system proposed every week. There are launcher systems all over the world in many, many countries, mostly though, those are to put things in low Earth orbit.
The countries that can launch people are China, Russia, and the US. India is working towards that capability.
In the commercial role, only SpaceX has launched people into orbit, in addition theres only a few other US companies working to develop the capability: Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, and Boeing. Its a handful but you wouldnt expect it to be a lot till theres a lot going on and then people will rush to the marketplace.
BlueOrigin, owned by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, is also working to launch humans into space BlueOrigin
Think about it, if youre a country, lets say youre a Middle Eastern country with a lot of money, in a few years you could automatically go into the space age by just buying a private space station and buying tickets to get there from SpaceX.
Now youre in a country that went from no human spaceflight to your own space station. Because you can buy it.
If you look at Star Wars movies and you look at Star Trek, whatever these inventive writers envision for the future, it gives the real engineers something to aim for and some of it comes true.
Star Treks USS Enterprise might be a work of fiction, but it has inspired many to push us further into space Alamy
So, in a way, Elon [Musk, SpaceX CEO] is setting a vision, and engineers, like myself, all want to do exciting things. And so whether 100 people are going to be going to Mars anytime soon, that may or may not happen.
But theres a lot of engineers and a lot of people who want to dedicate their lives to doing something exciting, that is different and that has never been done before. And so he energises amazing people who have already shown the amazing things theyre able to do in space and hes gotten their creativity working.
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