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The New Race to Outer Space

Outer Space – So Far Out, It’s In Again!

Here’s What You Need to Know About the New Space Age Including Mineral Resources, Doom, Poop and Robot Swarms.

Turns out Capt. Kirk was right – space is the final frontier. That’s why the titans of tech are now all vying to be the first to boldly go where no man – or woman – has gone before. Unwilling to let NASA have all the fun, some of the biggest names in the industry are competing in a 21st century space race. Not since the glory days of Alan Shephard’s moonwalk and John Glen’s orbit has there been this much excitement about space. Kind of on America’s back burner for decades, space is so far out that it’s in again.

Even as Trump angles to cut funding for Big Bird and meals for disabled seniors, he knew better than to go after NASA. Trump recently signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017. The new $19.5 billion dollar legislative package, as reported in Business Insider, greenlights NASA – among other things – to create a plan for getting humans “near or on the surface of Mars in the 2030s.” This new legislation marks the first time in nearly seven years that the US government has passed a new long-term vision for NASA’s future. Trump tweeted that he was “delighted to sign this bill reaffirming our national commitment to the core mission of NASA: human space exploration, space science, and technology.” Or perhaps he just doesn’t want to be upstaged by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who are both pushing hard on their own multi-billion dollar space projects.

Is There Life on Mars? Or maybe Saturn?

NASA, founded by President Eisenhower in 1958, continues to probe for an answer to David Bowie’s haunting question, is there life on Mars? Or more likely could there be life on Mars and could it be us?

NASA is currently developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s, according to its website.

Why? “Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery and robotic and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system. …Mars had conditions suitable for life in its past. Future exploration could uncover evidence of life, answering one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth?” NASA’s website loftily explains.

Besides the Mars exploration, Business Insider’s analysis highlights that the new budget includes plans to send an orbiting satellite to Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa, which may have a warm subsurface ocean (and possibly host alien life). And perhaps most important, the new plan asks NASA to accelerate its program to find killer asteroids in space before they find us.

NASA Using Bots to Mine the Moon

In the recent movie, The Martian poor stranded Matt Damon must try to make what he needs to survive on Mars. But current NASA projects are trying to prevent that problem. If humans someday colonize the moon and Mars, robotic prospectors and miners will be among the first to arrive, manufacturing fuel, water, and other essentials.

Even now robots are mining resources on the moon’s surface NASA’s Robert Mueller said during a recent segment of the Public Radio International (PRI) program Science Friday.

“On earth we are resource constrained. And it’s hard to get to the resources, they are below the surface of the earth. It is hard to mine them. In space, we have abundant resources, and they are easier to get to,” he said.

Mueller is the lead senior technologist for the RASSOR (Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot) project, as well as all Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Human Robotics Systems. The RASSOR mining robot will collect soil (known as regolith) on the moon and Mars so it can be processed into rocket propellants, breathable air, water, and other consumable commodities as well as manufacturing and construction materials. This program is part of Swamp Works, an edgy arm of NASA bundling everything from applied physics to cryogenics to make this space colonizing thing happen asap.

Gravity caused metals, fossil fuels and other resource materials to sink deep into the earth’s center. In space, there’s no gravity so valuable minerals are just lying around for the picking. Pre-crushed too.

“Most people think it’s a desolate wasteland when they see pictures coming back from the Moon and Mars. But it is all a matter of perspective,” Mueller said. “There are a lot of resources in space and a lot of energy.” We just need to be clever about inventing technologies to take advantage of these resources such as the four billion years’ worth of crushed rock that can be converted to molten fiberglass-like material for producing many objects.

“That means I can 3D print a habitat on Mars. I don’t have to bring anything with me,” he said calling this development a breakthrough.

Thanks to sophisticated robotics and AI, NASA’s getting ready to expand prospecting on the Moon and Mars. Mimicking how swarms of ants forage for resources, NASA is planning to emit swarms of hundreds of robots the size of lunchboxes that can cover a large amount of territory and alert the astronauts back in the spaceship when they find something. If any of the robots go kaput, a 3D printer on board the ship simply pumps out more. Larger robots will then be sent out to scoop up the discovered minerals. One goal is to enable spaceships to Mars to use surface mineral resources to create the fuel they need to return home instead of having to shlep it with them.

But Mueller thinks it would make sense for humans to homestead out there. Just like Superman’s parents rocketed him as an infant to Earth moments before their home planet Krypton exploded, humans may need to zoom away from Earth before it’s decimated by an asteroid.

Mueller echoed that idea saying, “There are a lot of threats to us on planet Earth from asteroids. If we can have a safer life and better life, why shouldn’t we go into space?”

X Marks the Spot on the Moon for Google’s Lunar XPRIZE

The Google-sponsored nonprofit XPRIZE, as highlighted in The Week, has also set off a race to the moon, with 15 privately funded teams vying to become the first to place a robotic lander on the moon and get it to travel at least 500 meters. The deadline for completing the task is December 2017, and teams must secure a rocket by this New Year’s Eve or be eliminated. In the balance hangs a $20 million grand prize with second place a distant $5 million. “Only five teams have managed that so far. One joint effort by the Japanese and Indian teams’ will take off on December 28, 2017, a reminder that leaving things to the last minute is a damn near universal human impulse,” the Week points out. “The others are all likely to launch toward the end of 2017, though no other dates have been announced.”

The Google Lunar XPrize deadline has already been extended multiple times, most recently from 2015 to 2016 and then again to the end of this year, says the engineering website Spectrum. The extensions have helped teams handle what has turned out to be one of the most difficult aspects of the competition: raising the money. The lunar projects can easily cost more than the grand prize.

According to the XPRIZE website, the higher purpose of the contest is that it “inspires hope through our vision of a better future where winning teams are the proof that the world’s seemingly impossible problems can be solved.”

But the more down-to-earth appeal is also the lure of the wealth of resources for the taking. Or as the website puts it, “The Moon is a treasure chest of rare metals and other beneficial materials that can be used here on Earth. A successful Google Lunar XPRIZE would result in cost-effective and reliable access to the Moon, allowing for the development of new methods of discovering and using space resources, and in the long-term, helping to expand human civilization into space.”

The discovery of lava caves that can shield humans from the harsh lunar atmosphere is also mentioned. But will they be able to stream Netflix up there?

Amazon’s Bezos Spending $1 Billion a Year to Win the Space Race

Jeff Bezos, the founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Amazon, the world’s largest online shopping retailer, clearly has a sharp sense for business. And he’s betting serious money on outer space. For the past 15 years, Bezos has been selling one billion a year of his Amazon stock to fund his private space venture Blue Origin. Although with his Amazon holdings valued at $73.54 billion, that well’s unlikely to run dry any time soon.

Beyond creating the ultimate theme park ride for a handful of wealthy space cowboys, Bezos also has visions of providing regular transportation and delivery service to new human settlements on the moon.

“The ultimate goal of the company is also to make spaceflight inexpensive enough that it’s reasonable to build businesses in space, including in orbit and beyond,” observed TechCrunch.

Blue Origin has been called a “passion project” for Bezos who has named a couple of his spaceships after his childhood astronaut heroes John Glenn and Alan Shephard. Blue Origin’s rocket, New Shephard, has been practicing flying and landing techniques that will enable suborbital tourist trips. Manned test flights are slated for later this year. Its New Glenn launch system with a total projected cost of around $2.5 billion is going to be a larger people mover.

This month, as reported in the New York Post, Bezos wrote a white paper distributed to NASA and the Trump administration stating that he wants to deliver packages to the moon by mid-2020 in a bid to jumpstart “future human settlement” there.

“Bezos’ ambitions have pitted Blue Origin against Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which thus far has been ahead by most measures in the burgeoning space race. In January, SpaceX’ s Falcon 9 rocket landed safely on a seaborne pad after launching a communications satellite into orbit,” the Post said. Bezos, however, said Blue Origin will be taking a step-by-step approach in its efforts rather than waging a flat-out space race.

Both tech leaders see reusable spacecraft as vital step in the process to eliminate the prohibitive cost of building new rockets for each run.

Bezos claims he’s going to be able to start sending paying customers to the moon for 40-minute round trips as early as 2018. Just plan on wearing Depends because there will be no potties on board. Bezos wants no one to poop or pee in his rockets, says GeekTyrant and other media sources.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX Ready to Boldly Send Paying Customers Where None Has Gone Before

Futurist and entrepreneur Elon Musk wants nothing less than to be the savior of humanity – and that means heading to space. According to his Wikipedia entry, Musk has stated that the goals of his companies SolarCity, Tesla Ic., and SpaceX revolve around his vision to change the world and humanity. His goals include reducing global warming through sustainable energy production and consumption, and reducing the “risk of human extinction” by “making life multi-planetary” through establishing a colony on Mars.

Influenced by classic sci-fi author Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Musk seeks space colonization to expand and possibly preserve human life and achievement. Musk sees not only asteroids but also global warming, microbes or weapons of mass destruction as apocalyptic threats.

With $100 million of his own money, Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies aka SpaceX, in May 2002. Musk’s private trust holds 54% of SpaceX stock, equivalent to 78% of voting shares.

SpaceX has been so successful with its Falcon – a nod to Star Wars Millennium Falcon -launch vehicle family – and its Dragon spacecraft family that it has been awarded NASA contracts.

SpaceX, Wikipedia further states, is the first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft (Dragon in 2010); the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station (Dragon in 2012), and the first to achieve a propulsive landing for an orbital rocket.

Now, according to Business Insider, SpaceX plans to launch two unnamed paying customers around the moon in late 2018. SpaceX plans to use its new Dragon 2 space capsule and Falcon Heavy rockets to complete the mission. With no human pilot on board. The trip would take about a week and may cost more than $300 million.

“Lift-off will be from Kennedy Space Center’s historic Pad 39A near Cape Canaveral — the same launch pad used by the Apollo program for its lunar missions. This presents an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years and they will travel faster and further into the Solar System than any before them,” Musk said in a prepared statement.

Virgin Galactic Is No Virgin at Moving People Through Space

Another competitor in the race to space and perhaps the dark horse to watch is Virgin Galactic. It’s part of the Virgin Group founded by outsized personality and visionary – Sir Richard Branson who also started Virgin Airlines. Branson sees the future of space travel as big interplanetary airlines moving lots of people through space – and he thinks his company is the one that’s going to make it happen first.

“Throughout all human history, only about 550 people have ever visited space. This means that not only have most of us never been to space, most of us have never even met someone else who can tell us about the experience. …That is about to change,” Galactic promises on its website. So far 700 people have plunked down deposits for Galactic’s upcoming $250,000 a head space flights and they are a diverse bunch from over 50 countries, a point of pride for Galactic.

Recently we reported how Detroit’s big carmakers believe they know the car business and how to mass produce a car better than upstarts like Google and Uber, so they’ll ultimately win the race for self-driving cars. Similarly, Virgin believes that because they’re pros at commercialized air travel, they’ll be able to translate this to outer space better than newbies like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

And Virgin Galactic’s been working at this since 2004. After the 2014 tragic mid-air explosion of its SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise that resulted in the death of one of its co-pilots, Virgin Galactic stayed low-key for a while but now is rebounding and staffing up for the future.

Besides being on track to send tourists into space, Galactic plans to start applying their spacecraft know-how to air travel on Earth. “You basically jump in a spaceship and go around the planet,” Galactic CEO George Whitesides told CNBC in January.

Virgin Galactic also remains committed to its vision of bringing interplanetary flight to the masses.

“Only through the exploration of the unknown can we continue to grow and evolve. Space is not only important for the future of transportation, commerce, and science; it’s also important for the future of imagination. We still know so little about space and how our understanding of it can benefit life on our planet. What is clear is that the ability for more people to cross the final frontier of space will be key to human advancement,” Galactic’s website explains.

Welcome to the new Space Age. As Buzz Lightyear would say, “To infinity and beyond!”

Is there a job for you in Outer Space?  Be sure to read our companion piece: Who’s Hiring For the New Race to Space?