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Profiting from space

Chiponda ChimbeluJuly 22, 2013

This month marks two years since NASA's final space shuttle launch from Florida. The end of NASA's Space Shuttle program has led to the commercialization of the industry.

Space shuttle Atlantis launches from pad 39A on July 8, 2011 at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launch of Atlantis, STS-135, is the final flight of the shuttle program
Image: Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty Images

For years, NASA was only rivalled by Russia's space agency ROSCOSMOS. But during the last decade, NASA has suffered a series of setbacks despite its successful landing of rover Curiosity on Mars in 2012. Since the end of its Space Shuttle program in July 2011, NASA has had to rely on ROSCOSMOS to send its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). But ROSCOSMOS has also had its own share of problems. Earlier this month, an unmanned Russian rocket carrying three navigation satellites crashed at a launch facility in Kazakhstan shortly after taking off.

China, on the other hand, has made inroads into the space industry in the last decade. Last month, it completed its longest manned space mission, with the return of the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft to Earth. But one of its biggest successes came in September 2011 when it launched Tiangong-1, a space station with a manned laboratory and the possibility to test docking capabilities. NASA currently has to share the ISS for which funding runs out in 2020 with the Russian, Japanese, Canadian and European space agencies. China has plans to significantly expand Tiangong-1 from 2020.

High-Resolution Self-Portrait by Curiosity Rover Arm Camera
Mars Rover Curiosity mission the most expensive mission to date - costing around $2.5 billionImage: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Compensating for cuts

To compensate for significant cuts to its space program, the US government has been working on providing support to private ventures. Private companies can now bid on a contract to transport NASA's cargo to the International Space Station. Also, an initiative has been established in which crew (astronaut) transportation will be outsourced.

"Because of the world economy, which has affected the United States and most other countries in the world, the [US] government has to make decisions about big investments," former NASA astronaut Pamela Melroy told DW.

Melroy, who also worked for the US Federal Aviation Authority, believes that fostering the private sector is the way forward for the space industry, pointing to the commercialization of the telecommunications sector as an example. Investment by companies has helped transform the industry and increased access to the Internet, she said.

Commercialization good for research

By turning NASA into a customer, the US government is stimulating development of the private space industry. And this could open up opportunities for other actors interested in space research.

"I believe the big market is the research and education market where researchers and students can participate and understand physics better and do experiments in space," Melroy said. "There are many private individuals who are interested in putting things in space."

Antares rocket launches from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on April 21, 2013 in Wallops Islandm, Virginia. (Photo: Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images)
Orbital Sciences Antares Launch in April is one of the rockets that could transport NASA cargo to the ISSImage: Getty Images

Conditions in space can help scientists get a better understanding of how materials work, aging and the effect of gravity on people.

"The removal of the gravity allows us some insight in the fundamental scientific investigations and research areas that enable us to explore," said Bonnie Dunbar, a former astronaut who is now a University of Houston biomedical engineering professor.

There's one major snag though - researchers do not have a reliable communication link to observe their experiments 24/7, Dunbar added. And this is essential for some experiments.

'American approach will be successful'

Experts say that the American approach to space research is showing a lot of potential.

"I think that the American approach will be successful and there will be only few spaces for European activities, private activities," said Gerd Gruppe, a board member of the German Aeronautics and Space Research Center (DLR).

The opportunities for European companies are in providing space-related services on Earth like operating an operations center, he noted.

Orbital Sciences had a successful test launch earlier this year. In addition, Virgin Galactic, a US-based space venture that aims to take tourists into space, had a successful test flight in April this year. There are also four new human spacecrafts in development in the United States, according to former NASA astronaut Melroy.

A drawing provided by Inspiration Mars shows an artist's conception of a spacecraft envisioned by the private group, which wants to send a married couple on a mission to fly by the red planet and zip back home, beginning in 2018. The nonprofit Inspiration Mars will get initial money from multimillionaire Dennis Tito, the first space tourist. Outsiders put the price tag at more than $1 billion. The mission, announced Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, would last more than 16 months. (AP Photo/Inspiration Mars)
Earlier this year, US billionaire Dennis Tito announced plans to send a married couple for a Mars swingby in 2018Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Inspiration Mars

Landing humans on Mars

Ultimately, landing humans on Mars is the main goal in the space industry today.  Earlier this year, US multi-millionaire Dennis Tito announced that he was looking for an ordinary couple to send on a Mars fly-by mission that would last 501 days. Mars One, a Dutch initiative, is also looking for four volunteers to send to the Red Planet to establish a permanent human colony by 2023.

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Despite the fact that Mars One is offering no return flight to Earth, the initiative has already attracted thousands of applications. However, the project isn't getting much financial support and has only managed to raise around $100,000 of the $6 billion that is required for the mission. Still, former NASA astronaut Pamela Melroy is enthusiastic about projects like Inspiration Mars and Mars One.

"Ten years ago, there were perhaps three spacecraft that could carry people into space. And that's all anybody thought of. And then maybe a few people, even big government agencies [...] and now you literally have 8, 9, 10 [spacecraft] that engineers are actually working on," she said. "Some of them will be successful. Some will not."

However, Gerd Gruppe of the DLR doesn't agree. "Mars is something for states and state agencies and big companies," he said.