A little over a week on from the 50th anniversary of the first ever human moon landing, a new space race is gathering pace. When Neil Armstrongâ€™s immortal words on becoming the first man to walk on the moon were beamed back to Earth, few would have believed that the last human to set foot on the moon would do so just several years later. But as of 2019, 47 years have passed since Nasaâ€™s Apollo 17 mission became the last time humans have travelled beyond the Earthâ€™s low orbit and achieved a crewed lunar landing.
An easing in cold war posturing between the USA and Russia led to the decision that the expense and danger of manned lunar landings simply couldnâ€™t be justified. In the intervening years the USA, Russia (and previously the USSR), the European Space Agency, Japan, China and India have all landed probes on the moon. But no human crew has made a moon landing since the last of the 9 Apollo mission between 1968 and 1972.
Thatâ€™s about to change. The USA has stated the ambition to again send American astronauts to the moon â€“ now possibly as early as 2024, four years ahead of the previous target of 2028. But the new space race is not being led by governments. It is the private sector that is taking over and the next lunar landing, and the majority of those that follow, will almost certainly be commercial ventures.
A phalanx of start-ups, backed by some of the wealthiest and most ambitious businessmen on the planet, are behind the resurrection of space industry. Nasa is even enlisting their help and starting to rely on the cost efficiencies their commercial models are producing. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is now a customer of a private space industry â€“ no longer its protagonist.
Nasa reportedly sees a commercial space industry as not only the best way to bring down its own costs, it estimates it would have spent 10 times the $400 million budget Elon Muskâ€™s SpaceX developed its Falcon 9 rocket for, but the only way that a sustainable space industry will develop. Government budget priorities ebb and flow and the reliance on public funding is why the last time a man stepped onto the Moon was 1972. The Falcon 9 is now the spacecraft used to resupply the International Space Station and the Nasa believes the private sector efficiencies are the model that must be followed for future space development.
The Moon is seen as a future industrial base for Earth as well as the â€˜basecampâ€™ for future missions to the rest of our solar system. Another private company, Astrobotic, has won the Nasa contract to take a 2021 â€˜payloadâ€™ of cargo onto the surface of the Moon. The company has raised just $2.5 million in equity funding. The rest of its finance has come from its $79.5 million contract with Nasa and pre-payment from other customers like DHL, who are sponsoring the mission, and private individuals paying for the transport of assorted cargos from human remains to be deposited on the Moon to time capsules. Itâ€™s been described as a â€˜bootstrappedâ€™ lunar transport company.
The Nasa cargo to be carried, which will cost the space agency just 1% of its annual budget, will be left in preparation for future manned landings. It includes rovers which will be used to search for water beneath the Moonâ€™s surface, solar power plants and communications infrastructure. The gear represents the first batch of equipment designed to support a long term human presence on the Moon.
Amazon boss Jeff Bezosâ€™s Blue Origin has been developing a â€˜moon landerâ€™. If Nasa succeeds in its ambition to return astronauts to the Moon in 2014, there is a high chance it will be the companyâ€™s first big customer for the technology. It would be a win-win arrangement, immediately justifying the investment and offering Nasa a ready-made solution at a fraction of the price it would have cost them to develop something similar in-house.
The first phase of the new commercial space industry will, then, largely be based around cargo delivery. However, there is also a sub-industry several private companies believe will also be hugely lucrative â€“ space tourism. Richard Bransonâ€™s Virgin Galactic, Elon Muskâ€™s SpaceX, Jeff Bezosâ€™s Blue Origin and Orion Span all expect to launch their first passenger flights into space within the next 1-3 years. These trips, at least initially, will not take space tourists to the Moon but will take them into â€˜near spaceâ€™ orbits of Earth.
Orion Span has announced plans for its Aurora Space Station, a commercial space station that will sit in the low Earth orbit and function as a small â€˜space hotelâ€™. Several months of reservations, costing around Â£7 million a head, have sold out and the first guests are expected to arrive in 2022.
Virgin Galactic, which is already selling Â£200,000 tickets, hopes to launch its first 90-minute passenger flights into space as soon as next year (2020). Around 600 would-be space tourists have already booked their seats, bringing in almost Â£65 million. Virgin Galactic recently announced a merger with the cash shell Social Capital Hedosophia. Itâ€™s expected to go through later this year and will make the new company, Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc., the first publically traded commercial space company.
Moon Mining â€“ Rocket Fuel and Minerals
After cargo and space tourism, the next big space industry is forecast to be the extraction of water and mining of minerals and precious metals. Many scientists believe there are huge quantities of frozen water at the Moonâ€™s poles. The value in this, if proven correct, is not just a sustainable source of water for humans on the Moon. It could theoretically be separated into hydrogen and oxygen to produce huge quantities of rocket fuel. That would allow the Moon to be used as a fuel stop or starting point for future missions to Mars â€“ also thought to be rich in minable materials and holding water at its poles.
Mining of minerals and precious metals present on the Moon as a result of asteroid strikes could offer the private sector a huge windfall of riches. The international race to claim those resources is the biggest incentive for the contemporary commercial space industry. Itâ€™s also arguably why Nasa is so active again.
The Final Frontier
Space is still the final frontier and just how lucrative the new space industry will be is still unknown. We donâ€™t, and wonâ€™t until much more extensive manned-missions have taken place over the coming years, know exactly how accessible the Moonâ€™s water and mineral riches are. But weâ€™re going to find out over the next years and decades.
And Richard Branson claims the price of a ticket into space on a Virgin Galactic flight is comparable to the inflation-indexed cost of the first commercial trans-Atlantic flights on planes. If costs fall over the years in a similar way, a trip into space, or even to the Moon, could become as feasible an option for many of us as a week in New York today by the time we reach retirement. An exciting thought.