Monday, April 23, 2012

America, Germany, and the Privatization of Space Travel

     One of the most characterizing technological advances of the twentieth century was space travel.  The race to get into orbit around the Earth, and then to the moon, consumed Cold War super powers during the post-WW2 era in an attempt to gain prestige and influence throughout the world.  Since the 1990s, the pressure to develop space technology has cooled, but this is by no means an indication that interest in space exploration is waning (at least in the scientific community).  As competitive as space research remains among countries, new advances such as the International Space Station have caused it to become much more of a global collaborative than in the early days of the science.  This has lead to an increased interdependence between countries, one of the most prominent partnerships being between the United States and Germany. Currently, one of the most interesting aspects in this field is that it is becoming privatized for the first time in history which leads to big questions for both countries and the world.

Before I talk about privatization of space travel, I want to outline the relationship between space researchers in the United States and Germany.  Germany's Aerospace Center is part of the European Space Agency, and thus cooperates with space programs such as NASA on a global scale through that union.  Germany and the United States have cooperated on a variety of missions, and aided each other in seemingly every major operation in recent memory.  Without going into too much detail, these missions include sending vessels to Mercury, Mars, prominent asteroid belts, and moons of multiple planets in our solar system.  Due to high costs, one of the most collaborated upon tasks has been in the actual transportation of astronauts and cargo into space.  This issue and how it is approached greatly affects both the United States and Germany, because neither currently has an internal method of getting people to the International Space Station to perform research.

Thomas Reiter, the German astronaut in charge of the International Space Station within the European Space Agency, notes in an interview that the United States has recently closed their own space shuttle program and must now rely on Russian vessels to transport Americans into space.  Germany faces the same issue, and Reiter notes that one of the upcoming alternatives is using privatized shuttles from companies such as SpaceX.  This is the first time in history that non-government agencies have a chance to play such an important role in space research, and this is where we get to the fun part: what does privatization mean for space research and space travel for the world?

Many, including myself, quickly let their minds imagine up a place in which privatized space giants can offer unprecedented flexibility and funding that government has never been able to give.  Some have imagined that this would result in rapid advances in space technology, and vastly increasing the number of people that could actually have a chance to travel into space.  However, this is probably not the case, at least for the foreseeable future.  Astrophysicist Neil Tyson can tell you why in this video by "Big Think".
To sum up what this guy says, although the privatization of space travel might be exciting, it is probably not going to lead to anything revolutionary in the near future.  Private firms are not going to outperform the government programs and say, discover life on Mars.  This is simply because private firms can only spend massive amounts of money if they know they can profit, so they can only take advantage of what has been already been forged by the government.  The risks of a field like space travel are simply too great for private firms to make a profit by being pioneers.  However, part of what many people have dreamed for might be true, as he mentions the possibility of a "space lottery".  Private firms could easily take control of low orbit space operations since the experience and is widely available and costs are much lower.  This could create the possibility for consumer space travel funded my private lotteries.  Would you buy a ticket?

Putting the dreams of space enthusiasts aside, this development as real implications for the United States and Germany.  As two of the strongest world economies, both countries are at the forefront of space research and privatization will determine how they conduct missions in the future.  NASA currently has six private companies working with it to send vessels into space, and there are several leaders in a race to literally become the space version of Fed-Ex.  How that process shakes out and how the new industry is formed will determine the direction of space travel for decades to come.         

1 comment:

paige.alexis.walters said...

Finally a topic worth talking about! SPACE.

It's funny how space exploration was originally motivated as a status symbol for wealthy countries, rather than exploring purely for the sake of curiosity of the unknown.

I am all for a global collaboratives in space exploration, because when it comes to THE DEEP COSMIC ABYSS it is certainly more important than international competitions.

It is inspiring that private companies are taking space exploration into their own hands, although after watching the video it is clear that the initiatives are likely to be less bold than if operated by the government since they were more compelled to take risks.

Many would argue that we should focus on our own issues at home, rather than investing in such preposterous space activities - but perhaps if we look beyond ourselves we will gain a better understanding of who we are and in turn, lessen our petty disputes on earth driven by power.

But instead, the US choses to shut down funding for NASA so they redirect their investments in aeronautic weaponry to shoot down their targets from space.