Adam Minter

Who Needs the Government to Go to Venus?

Space scientists have waited nearly four decades for a taxpayer-funded spacecraft to be put to death when it sinks into the atmosphere of Venus. On Tuesday, Rocket Lab USA Inc., a private space launch provider, announced that the wait was almost over. But instead of relying on the government space agency to pay the rent, Rocket Lab will self-finance the mission, set to launch in May 2023. If successful, it would become the first private spacecraft to visit another planet.

It won’t be the last. Thanks to the emergence of private, low-cost rockets and satellites, space science is about to undergo a welcome revolution. Scientists will no longer need to rely solely on taxpayers and government generosity to explore the solar system. Instead, private institutions and funds will play a key role in paying for 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 endeavor followed by those who had the time, money, and motivation to do so. Benjamin Franklin’s groundbreaking work on electricity was a hobby; So, too, were flying machines manufactured in the Ohio Bicycle Workshop of the Wright brothers. If a person is short of money, institutional support from universities, scientific societies, and museums can fill the gap, as the Smithsonian did for Robert Goddard when he launched the first liquid-fueled rockets in the early 20th century. was constructed.

World War II and the Cold War changed the funding equation. To ensure that innovation remained an engine for the American economy, and for national security reasons, Congress centralized scientific funding in institutions such as the National Science Foundation.

Aerospace funding and research was concentrated in military and civilian programs such as NASA. Some of this, such as the Moon landings, had an obvious application (beating the Soviet Union). But other research programs leaned more towards science for the sake of science. For example, on December 14, 1962, NASA’s Mariner 2 spacecraft completed the first successful mission to another planet when it passed Venus. Over the next half century, NASA and Congress supported dozens of additional robotic explorers, including pioneer flybys of every planet in the Solar System.

Yet for all the scientific merits of these missions, decades can and do elapse between the time they were conceived and the time they were launched. In large part, the problem is money; Only a handful of missions are selected out of dozens of missions proposed to NASA.

Fortunately, innovation has begun to erase the government’s lock on space exploration. Over the past two decades, private and public entities have developed a new class of small, affordable satellites, known as Smallsats and CubeSats. These small-sized crafts are built to standardized dimensions, some as small as a Rubik’s Cube, and typically only weigh a few pounds. Unlike custom-built satellites, which have dominated the space age and can cost hundreds of millions of dollars or more, CubeSats often use off-the-shelf consumer-grade components and cost more than $1 million. may decrease. While they certainly aren’t as capable as their larger, bespoke counterparts, the lower cost means they can be developed and launched more quickly and at less cost.

Similarly, companies such as Rocket Lab and SpaceX have created a private rocket-launch marketplace that has substantially reduced the cost of accessing space. For example, the cost of launching 1 kilogram on NASA’s workhorse Space Shuttle, which was retired in 2011, was about $30,000 (in 2021 dollars). Today, a SpaceX Falcon 9 can launch a kilogram for about $1,500. Meanwhile, the number of rockets launched annually has doubled in the past decade, providing opportunities for smaller satellites that would never have reached space a decade ago.

Those 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 oven-sized NASA CubeSat taking an unusual, deep space route to orbit the Moon (it will arrive in November). The entire mission cost just under $30 million, of which a third went to Rocket Lab’s launch and orbital insertion on its spacecraft. Rocket Lab President and CEO Peter Beck said at a recent conference that he sees the project as a demonstration that, for “tens of millions of dollars” one can “go to an asteroid”. And can go to the moon, can go” and travel to another planet. ,

As Beck notes, it never existed before. Now that that happens, private companies, individuals and universities can consider space exploration without seeking government funding. Beck is a good example. He has spoken publicly about his fascination with Venus for a long time. To satisfy their curiosity, Rocket Lab is collaborating with a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on its Venus mission. As planned, it would launch on the same rocket platform responsible for the capstone and carry a smaller probe with a scientific payload of about 1 kilogram. This is scientific protection, an age-old model of funding, and this is just the beginning.

The price of launching into space will continue to drop over the next few years, and scientists are already seriously thinking about how to take advantage of the savings. Private companies wishing to market their rockets or explore asteroids and planets for potential future mining and other resource extraction can work closely with them on low-cost, high-risk missions. Foundations and universities that fund science can begin to envision grants that pay for deep space exploration. And wealthy individuals who are interested in funding something that others don’t have will have a new, prestige-boosting way of funding science.

It is a kind of scientific revolution, which will expand not only human knowledge but also human ambition.