After the first successful manned Apollo mission to the moon, the excitement and expectations for space travel and exploration were at an all-time high. There were plans for a large number of space stations in orbit around the Earth as well as bases on the moon and cheap, regular travel into space. Still, by the 21st century, little progress was achieved and the space program fell short of expectations. What happened?
The ambitious Apollo moon mission era suffered from the economic realities of space exploration, which led to the downsizing of the U.S. space program. For a period of time, no significant advancements were made. The space shuttles grew old, and in 2011, all three were retired after more than thirty years of service. Since then, U.S. astronauts have had to travel to the International Space Station via Russian spacecraft. However, this is likely to change soon in a significant way.
Earlier this month, SpaceX, an American aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company founded by Elon Musk, was certified by the United States Air Force to conduct military launches. The move dramatically changed the space industry because until then, the lucrative contracts to launch satellites and other military vehicles into space had been limited to one player—United Launch Alliance—a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. However, in a game-changing move, SpaceX promised to launch satellites into orbit at a significantly lower cost.
While SpaceX may not be a familiar name, they have flown numerous resupply missions to the International Space Station under contracts with NASA. And, as space travel becomes more affordable, SpaceX imagines a surge in consumer demand to get to space. Accordingly, they are building a spacecraft that can carry human cargo into space to eliminate the reliance that America has on Russian launchers.
They are not alone, however. Other startups are joining the commercial space industry because of the growing demand for delivering materials into space and the potential of commercial space travel. In 2004, the founder of Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic with the intent of creating a brand new space tourism industry to transport passengers into low Earth orbit for a few hours. Hundreds of people have already paid $250,000 to reserve the thrill ride.
Another competitor, Blue Origin—founded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon—is aiming to deliver cheaper access to space for both people and satellites albeit using completely different technology. Similarly, dozens of smaller startups have emerged all over the world with the goal of making an impact in the space industry.
If this trend continues and some stability is achieved, the future of manned space travel looks promising.