“What if everything until now has been a prologue?” asks Axiom Space. “Human progress didn't stop at the horizon. Why would it stop at the atmosphere?” As a key player in the future of private space travel, Axiom plans to launch the first ever commercial space station by 2028. Including a microgravity research laboratory and a residential infrastructure for private and professional astronauts from across the world, it will be a vibrant hub of interstellar activity – which is vital when you consider that, with each day that passes, mass-scale human expansion into space is looking more and more inevitable.
Right now, amidst a new space race – think SpaceX’s Dragon docking at the ISS in April and private crews like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Axiom’s AX-1 mission all slated for launch soon – we’re at the dawn of a golden era for the private space industry. Whether it’s human settlement, space tourism, or resource utilization, the possibilities for business in space are vast, as are those for fascinating future discoveries, including new medicines and materials. When it comes to the Moon, asteroids, Mars and even Venus, we have only just scratched the surface – radical breakthroughs await us, and they will improve our lives here on Earth, too.
“Expand our planet, expand our future.” This is the core belief of Tokyo-based space robotics company, ispace, who made their first attempt at landing a rover on the Moon as Team HAKUTO, one of the finalists in the Google Lunar XPRIZE.
“At ispace, we believe that it will be beneficial to all humankind to expand the sphere of human activity into space and to include the Moon in that sphere,” says Kevin Zaleski, one of the core team, explaining that ispace’s goal is to be a vehicle for companies on Earth to access new business opportunities on the Moon. Zaleski lists some of the benefits beyond the purely economic: “will be able to create a more sustainable ecosystem to ensure the sustainability of enriched human life on Earth, and advance technology and science in the process.”
Dr Kam Ghaffarian, world-leading space expert and founder of IBX and Axiom Space, believes our expansion into space is part of our DNA. “Us humans are explorers,” he explains. “Generally speaking, I think that we like to know what's going on and where things are. The universe is so huge, and we're just such a small dot. So just getting to know what else is out there, not only within our solar system, but beyond our galaxy, it's just part of our human inclination.”
Beyond exploration, creating a new economy will be important, he adds: “Manufacturing, for example, and 3D printing, and biological research – there are many areas that can help us on our planet. We can look at what the International Space Station has been able to do in Earth science: research into infectious diseases, medical specialties, brain research, biotechnology, and chemistry have all been furthered by our expansion into space.” Plus, there are the predictions that we can make from space he points out: “satellites that currently are in orbit that help us with weather forecasts, climate, all of these things are the benefits of space exploration.”
Moving to the moon
According to ispace, “by 2040 the moon will support a population of 1000 people with 10,000 visiting each year”. But who are those people? And what will they be doing up there?
“The first 1000 people to permanently live on the Moon will perform foundational work in establishing the lunar economy and generating revenue through it,” Zalaski explains. “While we believe that certain tasks on the Moon will be performed by robotic machines, more complex and essential work will require the presence and interaction of humans. To achieve that, we need permanent settlements on the lunar surface, as well as visits by specialists and workforces.”
This will be indispensable for the construction of infrastructure, scientific experimentation, resource exploration, processing, and utilization, but also as a transfer point to deeper space destinations such as Mars, he explains. More people on the moon will also advance technology and create new employment opportunities, but for all of this to happen, tapping into the moon’s water resources is key, Zalaski says. “This water will be a driving factor in the establishment of a permanent human presence on the Moon, since it can be used to produce breathable air and rocket propellant.”
HAKUTO-R’s two first missions, M1 and M2, are scheduled for 2022 and 2023. If successful, the mission will kick start a lunar infrastructure and economy. Zalaski predicts that the late 2020s will see not only astronauts from government agencies but many commercial astronauts travelling to the moon, working on the verification of technologies, such as energy storage and generation and wireless communication, learning how to utilize the Moon and make first steps towards permanent and sustainable human presence, including conducting environmental studies of temperature, radiation, lunar surface composition and resource location, but also verification of biological processes for food production or pharmaceutics. It will be a decade of R&D, he says.
As for space tourism, you might be going on a space vacation sooner than you think. Consider that space tourism is already well underway – think Jeff Bezos auctioning off a ticket to ride to space with Blue Origin, and Tom Cruise buying a trip to the ISS – this prediction looks even more likely. iSpace believes that private space travel will expand to include the lunar surface within the next decade, and Dr Ghaffarian agrees: “I can see that in 10 to 20 years, going to the moon will become like getting on an aircraft, and it will become a normal thing to be able to travel.”
With their Axiom Station attached to the ISS (check out the beautiful decor plans by interior designer Phillipe Starck), Axiom Space is focusing on providing accommodation for private astronauts carrying out research projects. However, speaking of space tourism more broadly, Dr Ghaffarian believes that it will become much more popular in years to come, and also democratic: “Think about the early days or airlines, not everyone was able to go because it was not affordable, but over time that changed.”
The main benefits of democratizing space travel will be to change the human outlook, he points out: “When I've talked to astronauts about their experiences in space, the general consensus is that it’s almost a spiritual experience. You look at our planet, and the beauty of it, and you don't see borders, you don't see countries. It gives them a sense that we're all in this place we call home. and we're all part of this race called the human race – there's this sense of unity.”
A sustainable and equitable future
In order to successfully move into space, sustainability and equitability will be key. One immediate watchout, according to space environmentalist Dr Moriba Jah at the University of Texas, is reducing what we might call “space junk” also known as the debris that is left floating around space after missions that don’t return to earth; old rockets and machinery that pose collision risks for functional satellites that provide services like WiFi and GPS on Earth. For this reason, in the future, space cleanup companies could also become a business in their own right, Jah has said. First, we’d need to start viewing near-Earth orbit as an ecosystem in its own right.
Space may or may not be infinite, but the resources in space we can access are not. This includes moon water. “Water is one of our most valuable resources –not only on the Moon, but also here on Earth,” says Zakalso. “That is why we believe that it is necessary to have a robust framework of governance around the possession and utilization of such resources in space, to avoid conflicts or unfair or dangerous usage of said resources.”
The same goes for asteroid mining, for which we will need regulatory systems that divide up access if we’re to ensure peaceful access to outer space. While the nickel and platinum found in asteroids could potentially offer a solution to the amount of battery metals we’ll need to reach net-zero here on Earth, experts say the feasibility and technology is a little way off.
“I think there's lots of lessons we’ve learned from our planet itself,” says Dr Ghaffarian, “particularly from climate change. I think it's so important that we apply these lessons as we increasingly become explorers, and recognize that we need to be responsible custodians not only for our planet, but for the space around our planet and beyond. It's sort of like, our oceans are vast, right? But that doesn't mean that we should throw stuff in our oceans.”
Business – and life on Mars?
We can be sure that the 2020s will be the R&D phase of lunar development, ispace concludes, and a new space station is certainly coming. But the billion dollar question is whether – and when – the rest of us, beyond a select group of government, and commercial astronauts, will ever make it up into space, or even live there.
Dr Ghaffarian believes that, at the rate things are moving, this is entirely possible. “Commercial space companies are pioneers in pushing the envelope. I can see within the next 10 years that our space station will be built and operating, with many new verticals – from 3D printing to cybersecurity to satellite servicing. A new space economy will be thriving, growing, prospering,” he says.
“I can also see that, going further, we will have habitats on the surface of the moon, and the ability to go to the moon will become more of a normal thing. Beyond that, I can see us going to the surface of Mars, and maybe even having a habitat on the surface of Mars. And maybe if we look forward to 50 to 100 years, I think we will make significant progress in terms of traveling beyond our solar system, and really exploring our galaxy, becoming an interplanetary species and maybe even an intergalactic species. There is so much ahead, I feel it’s like the early days of the internet, and the potential is limitless.”