By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of sebastien lebrigand.
On Dec 17, 1903, clouds of sand whirled across the beach dunes of Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina, kicked up by a steady wind sweeping inland from the sea.
It was certainly not warm enough for swimming, and yet a crowd gathered on the banks. At 10:35am, their patience was rewarded when Orville Wright succeeded in flying the first manned aircraft for 12 seconds, traveling 120 feet in distance, changing travel forever.
Over a hundred years later, Mike Melvill climbed into the pilot’s seat of SpaceShipOne and launched the first ever commercial craft into suborbital space. Thus, June 21, 2004, is commonly thought of as the beginning of space flight as a private industry.
Today, a handful of companies are attempting to capitalize on space by selling flights to anyone with a penchant for stars and a few hundred thousand dollars. But don’t rob a bank just yet, there’s still a long way to go before travel agents can book you a vacation on the moon.
SpaceShipOne’s path was “suborbital,” which, as the name suggests, is not quite orbital; it indicates that the craft reached space, but didn’t leave the atmosphere of the gravitational body (in this case, Earth) from which it launched. Like a magnet, the craft gets pulled back down toward the closest center of gravity (again, Earth). So it gets really, really close to the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space–called the Karman Line–but doesn’t cross it.
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Once a ship does cross the Karman Line and venture into space, it exists within a vacuum. There’s no matter there, no gravity, no heat, no nothing. If someone were to leave the ship in space without a spacesuit, let’s just say, there would be some nasty changes to their body, the least disgusting of which would be death (depending on your definition of disgusting, that is).
Of course, a human being aboard a ship that isn’t specially protected from said vacuum would meet the same fate.
NASA and other government-funded space programs spent decades developing technology that would allow humans to live in a space station with an atmosphere in which humans can survive. Otherwise, those nasty changes would occur: radiation, burning, suffocating, pain, and death.
But to get to that station (or Mars, or the moon, or anywhere else in space someone might be keen on visiting) a vacationer must first survive the flight. While government programs have cracked the space travel code, private companies are currently attempting to develop similar technology. The paramount problem these companies are tackling is how to keep passengers aboard a ship that crosses the Karman Line alive. After all, it’s bad business if your service kills people.
To date, the privately owned company SpaceX owns the only ship that can carry small living organisms successfully into space. Recently, its Dragon spaceship transported a 3-D printer, supplies, and 20 mice to the space station, but no humans can yet make the trip.
Another major impediment to human space travel that private companies are working to solve is the availability of water.
Even if you’re cool forgoing showers in return for being one of the first people to walk on Mars, you have to consume water to live, and a lot of it.
The average American person drinks about 20 ounces of water per day. Since no convenient outerspace lakes have been discovered (fingers crossed though) a person has to travel with the water they need or, in lieu of that, create it.
In January, Bill Gates made global headlines when he drank a glass of water made from poop. The method of distillation is scientifically sound, albeit gross.
“For space travel, urine and feces is the most promising avenue to create one’s own water,” Dr. Alex Hoehn, aerospace engineer and research professor at the Technical University of Munich and the University of Colorado at Boulder tells BTR. “Providing just one person with enough water for a month’s stay in space would cost millions of dollars in transportation, never mind a permanent settlement.”
Water is great and all–what with being essential for life–but let’s be honest, what you really want to have while gazing down on that endless horizon is a nice cold beer.
But carbonation injected into liquid in an environment with very little gravity (like, space) doesn’t mix. The result is flat, sad beer.
Don’t worry, though, the scientists are on it!
Hoehn is one of a small team that invented and patented a mechanism to separate the different phases of fluids in microgravity. Translation: He built a machine that allows for carbonation in outer space.
“A lot of innovations [like these] are coming out of private companies, rather than government-funded programs like NASA,” says Hoehn.
Photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson.
He explains NASA, as a government agency, is publicly funded and so can’t show commercial bias or turn a profit. NASA is also entrenched in decades of red tape practices, whereas private companies are not and can therefore develop new technologies much quicker.
For example, a company in Japan is attempting to build an elevator into space.
“It would be a challenge for NASA to get the funds and time to devote to a project like that,” Hoehn says.
Typically, government programs spend decades laying the foundation for a new technology, then the private sector takes over and develops thousands of ideas spring-boarding from it. Often, these private companies sell their inventions back to the government.
For instance, after SpaceX developed its ship that could cross the Karman Line and dock with the space station, they entered into a $2.6 billion-dollar contract with NASA agreeing to transport supplies for research from Earth.
“But that’s probably good, because NASA can then focus on research and not waste time trying to get the right forms signed to develop and manufacture new hardware,” Hoehn says.
Though major innovations continue to occur and create more hype about humans traveling to Mars, Hoehn is skeptical.
“We’re still a long ways away from commercial space travel that breaks the Karman Line,” he concludes.
That’s okay, we’ll wait.