Who needs the government to go to Venus?
It won’t be the last. Thanks to the emergence of low-cost private rockets and satellites, space science is about to experience a welcome revolution. Scientists will no longer need to rely solely on taxpayer and government largesse to explore the solar system. Instead, private institutions and funders will increasingly play a crucial role in funding exploration and basic science beyond Earth. Human knowledge will increase as a result of this change. Eventually, so will the bottom line.
Historically, science was a private enterprise pursued by those who had the free time, money and motivation to do so. Benjamin Franklin’s groundbreaking work on electricity was a hobby; so were the flying machines built in the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop in Ohio. If an individual lacked money, institutional support from universities, scientific societies, and museums could fill the void, as the Smithsonian did for Robert Goddard when he failed to build the first liquid-fueled rockets in the early days. of the XXth century.
World War II and the Cold War changed the funding equation. To ensure that innovation remains a driver of the US economy, and for national security reasons, Congress has centralized science funding in institutions such as the National Science Foundation.
Aerospace funding and research was concentrated in military and civilian programs like NASA. Some of them, like the moon landings, had an obvious application (defeating the Soviets). But other research programs were more science-for-science. For example, on December 14, 1962, NASA’s Mariner 2 spacecraft performed the first successful mission to another planet when it flew by Venus. Over the next half-century, NASA and Congress supported dozens more robotic explorers, including pioneering flybys of every planet in the solar system.
Yet for all the scientific merit of these missions, decades can pass between the time they are designed and the time they are launched. In large part, the problem is funding; only a handful of missions are selected from the dozens that are offered to NASA.
Fortunately, innovation is beginning to erode the government’s lock on space exploration. Over the past two decades, private and public entities have developed a new class of small, cost-effective satellites known as SmallSats and CubeSats. These miniaturized contraptions are built to standardized dimensions, some as small as a Rubik’s Cube, and usually weigh only a few pounds. Unlike the custom-built satellites that dominated the space age and can cost hundreds of millions of dollars or more, CubeSats often use off-the-shelf consumer components and can cost well under $1 million. While they certainly aren’t as capable as their larger, bespoke counterparts, their lower cost means they can be developed and launched faster and more cheaply.
Likewise, companies like Rocket Lab and SpaceX have created a private rocket launch market that has dramatically lowered the cost of reaching space. For example, the cost to launch 1 kilogram on NASA’s space shuttle, retired in 2011, was about $30,000 (in 2021 dollars). Today, a SpaceX Falcon 9 can launch a kilogram for around $1,500. Meanwhile, the number of rockets launched each year has doubled over the past decade, providing opportunities for smaller satellites that would never have reached space a decade ago.
These falling costs are prompting space scientists, space agencies, and space entrepreneurs to rethink what kind of science is possible. In June, Rocket Lab launched Capstone, a microwave-sized NASA CubeSat that takes an unusual deep-space route to orbit the moon (it will arrive in November). The entire mission cost just under $30 million, a third of which went to Rocket Lab for launch and orbital insertion on its spacecraft. Peter Beck, the president and CEO of Rocket Lab, recently told a conference that he sees the project as a demonstration that for “tens of millions of dollars” someone can “go visit an asteroid, go visit the moon, go and visit another planet.
As Beck notes, this has never existed before. Now that it is, private companies, individuals and universities can consider space exploration without asking the government for money. Beck is a good example. He has long spoken publicly about his fascination with Venus. To satisfy his curiosity, Rocket Lab is collaborating with a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on its Venus mission. As planned, it will launch on the same rocket platform responsible for Capstone and will carry a small probe with a scientific payload of around 1 kilogram. It’s scientific patronage, an old-fashioned funding model, and it’s just the beginning.
The price of launching into space will continue to fall over the next few years, and scientists are already thinking hard about how to take advantage of the savings. Private companies, eager to commercialize their rockets or explore asteroids and planets for possible future mining and other resource extraction, can partner with them for low-cost, high-risk missions. Foundations and universities that fund science can begin to dream up grants that pay for deep space exploration. And wealthy people interested in funding something others don’t will have a new way of funding science that will boost their prestige.
It is a kind of scientific revolution, which will expand not only human knowledge but also human ambition.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Macron’s Moonshot looks like a long shot: Laurent and Hughes
• Audacious and risky, the Webb mission is already a success: editorial
• The black hole of the Milky Way defies the laws of physics: Faye Flam
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia, technology and the environment. He is the author, most recently, of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale”.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion