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The Hindu Explains | Would space exploration survive in the era of privatisation?

Why is NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 launch significant? What are the other trends in the commercial space sector?

November 29, 2020 01:45 am | Updated 01:45 am IST

Astronauts, from left, Victor Glover, Michael Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi wave to family and friends as they leave the Operations and Checkout Building for a trip to Launch Pad 39-A and a planned liftoff on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon capsule on a six-month mission to the International Space Station Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Astronauts, from left, Victor Glover, Michael Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi wave to family and friends as they leave the Operations and Checkout Building for a trip to Launch Pad 39-A and a planned liftoff on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon capsule on a six-month mission to the International Space Station Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The story so far: Perhaps the most stunning instance of a collaboration between public enterprises and the private sector in recent times is that between NASA and SpaceX. It is stunning because of the sheer extent of the frontier it is trying to breach. With its reusable rockets, large capsules to carry payloads and crew and competitive pricing, SpaceX has revolutionised the space sector. The latest instances of this include the launch of the Crew Dragon spacecraft on November 15 , which carried to the International Space Station four astronauts — Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker of NASA and Soichi Noguchi of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Another recent feat is the launch on November 24 of 60 more Starlink Internet relay satellites into the orbit. These, and thousands more like these, are designed for the purpose of providing broadband services to people anywhere on Earth.

What is the picture in India?

In India too, we have seen the yielding of governmental control over the space industry bit by bit, starting from hiring of vendors and active outsourcing of rocket components to the present idea of allowing external agencies to use ISRO facilities . There has also been a shift from a mandated focus on utilitarian projects to those focused on exploring space and our planetary neighbours, the Moon, the Sun and so on. It is not too much to expect that soon, India may also see the emergence of collaborations like that between SpaceX and NASA.

Also read | ISRO gearing up for launch of small satellite launch vehicles: Sivan

What does the commercialisation of the space sector mean in practical terms?

Dr. Mylswamy Annadurai, former director of ISRO Satellite Centre, notes that the collaboration between NASA and SpaceX is remarkable because it has in fact taken the American space programme to a level that had not been possible for NASA to achieve by itself. Having their own rockets to transport astronauts to the International Space Station and back has prevented Americans from spending hugely on the mission, as they were doing earlier. This was possible only because of NASA’s active collaboration with SpaceX. Thus, the opening up of the space sector could have many more such advancements in store.

With the November 24 launch of 60 Starlink satellites, the total number of such satellites sent up by the company equals 955. Thousands more will join these, and the aim of this exercise is to provide Internet services that link any point on Earth to any other point. Targeting coverage in northern U.S. and Canada this year, the aim is to have the globe covered by 2021. This will be the new telecom revolution then, in the context of India, reaching out to rural areas as never before.

Would curiosity-driven science survive in the era of privatisation?

The cargo version of Dragon-2 spacecraft is the upgraded version of Dragon. It is a reusable spacecraft capable of returning significant cargo to the Earth from the International Space Station. At least in the case of its launch, planned for December 5, it seems that curiosity-driven science would not only survive, but would rather be enhanced. This spacecraft is not just carrying payloads for scientific experiments, but is also sporting a new commercially owned and operated ‘airlock’. An airlock is like a doorway, and the new Nanoracks Bishop Airlock Module , built by a Texas-based company, Nanoracks LLC, is an improvement over what was used earlier. This will allow larger payloads to move in and out of the spacecraft, considerably expanding the scope of experiment design and structure.

This mission also carries interesting experiments, one of which is a mixture of meteorite samples and microbes, aimed at seeing how the microbes can be used for biomining on asteroids. Another experiment aims at studying how changes in gravity can affect cardiovascular tissue. So, while there is room for curiosity-driven science, there is also the aspect of utility in the event of more humans travelling to space.

What is the future of space tourism?

Space tourism could become more common as space travel becomes less expensive. There are companies now, such as Virgin Galactic , Blue Origin and SpaceX, that will offer space flights, albeit for a very high fee. While the first two may allow the customer to experience a few minutes of only microgravity, the last company can, in principle, take space travellers to the International Space Station, where they could spend even weeks. Perhaps this is the stepping-stone to a future colony on the Moon , and should it come through, we will not be without Internet connections there.

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