Science can hitch a ride on space startups

There’s a seat for experiments.
There’s a seat for experiments.
Image: SpaceX
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The first US mission to Mars in five years may be the start of a new wave of exploration, as geopolitics and the private space industry pressure NASA to move faster. Global space agencies are planning five missions to Mars that are expected to launch in 2020, including a new US rover.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration called for a return to the moon, and then cancelled a planned NASA-designed rover in favor of hiring private companies to transport scientific instruments to the moon using vehicles of their own design, upsetting scientists who worked on the program. NASA is looking at plans to finance deep-space exploration by ending its work on the International Space Station in the next decade, possibly handing it over to one or more private companies.

Future missions will need to improve on the current record: InSight missed its original launch window in 2016 after a seismometer designed by France’s space agency failed in tests. This week, the oft-delayed James Webb Space Telescope project announced that it may face further slips in schedule after vibration tests that simulate the stress of a launch led to screws and washers falling off.

On April 16, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched a NASA satellite on a mission to hunt alien worlds. Next week, his company will fly the final version of its reusable Falcon 9 rocket, as Musk begins to focus on developing a larger interplanetary vehicle to send humans to Mars. Last weekend, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin launched its reusable rocket for the eighth time, with plans to fly human test pilots within the next year. All this as private funding is flowing to satellite builders and rocket-makers.

Scientists are concerned that they will be left out of a space revolution driven by private companies. Yet the model is not so different from today: Lockheed Martin, after all, built and will operate the InSight spacecraft, with researchers from around the world contributing scientific tools. And NASA science leaders like Thomas Zurbuchen are pushing for ambitious missions with cheap hardware—tiny cubesats—pioneered by private companies. In a perfect world, cheaper access to space should enable scientific exploration, not diminish it.

The real question is whether space agencies will continue demanding that aerospace companies act like bureaucracies, or if bureaucrats will learn from the new space companies and return to their roots—acting more like the tech startup NASA was when it got humans to the moon in the first place.