ALL ABOARD: SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launched the Dragon spacecraft on its inaugural orbital mission in 2010, becoming the first commercial company to send a spacecraft to orbit and return it safely to Earth. Image: COURTESY OF SPACEX
- Researchers who require access to space have long been frustrated by infrequent launch rates—an inevitable consequence of expensive launches.
- But new privately owned space launch companies are heralding an era of far cheaper and more frequent flights to space.
- Although many of the companies were founded to send tourists into space, researchers will be able to purchase room on the flights for their experiments for a cost that is far lower than their current options.
- Even researchers who would like to send experiments to the moon or on extended journeys in orbit around Earth are likely to benefit from companies now developing lunar landers and private space stations.
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One of the most vexing problems in space research is that so little has changed in 50 years about the way we get to space. Consequently, space access remains both expensive and rare. It has still not reached the stage where scientists can themselves routinely travel there to conduct research, unlike oceanographers, who routinely reach the deep ocean, or geophysicists, who venture to the poles.
All this is poised to change. The advent of for-profit commercial spaceflight—most recently highlighted by the successful launches of the Dragon space cargo capsule, built and operated by SpaceX, to the International Space Station (ISS)—will likely transform space research. Scientists will enjoy lower launch costs, far more frequent access to space and the opportunity to personally run their experiments in orbit. These advances will not only help the big space research enterprises at NASA and the Japanese and the European space agencies, they will also probably make space access affordable to a broad, global base of nations, academic institutions and corporations.
This article was originally published with the title The Low-Cost Ticket to Space.