Countdown to Another New Era

It’s been 3 years, 3 months, and 20 days since I last wrote about how the US space industry was mandated by law to fly US citizens to space from US soil. At the time that article was written, we were technically unprepared to do so. It reported that fact in so many words. Between then and now, somehow…

…We Got Prepared.

3 years, 3 months, and (almost) 22 days is how long I’ve been waiting impatiently for the US to launch itself back into space. There’s no jingoism behind my wish: just the desire for us to set our sights on doing a space thing and then DOING THE SPACE THING.

That’s not to say we haven’t been up to something in space for my entire life. We have, and then some. I wasn’t even 3 years old the last time the US premiered a crewed space vehicle (Space Shuttle, April 12, 1981). The ISS – that wonder of human ingenuity and technology – has been a largely catastrophe- free for a generation: always crewed, always overhead, always bright and perseverant; our proof that, no matter what happens on the ground, we have the guts, the grit, and the smarts to keep ourselves going in space. All my life that’s meant the world to me. I know that it means the world(s) to many others, too.

Current commercial crew vehicle (SpaceX Crew Dragon) spacecraft scheduled to Astronauts carry Behnken and Hurley to the ISS on 5/27. Photo credit.

What this new particular event means to me is that we once again have the get-up-and-go to get up and GO: to wherever we decide. How far we go is up to you, dear reader: to the taxpayers of the world, the global citizens who will support, or not, our hopeful mission to return to the Moon and move on into deep space.

If anyone in my generation every doubted that we could, that doubt should die a sudden death with this launch. We went from, “ain’t done this since 1981” to “AND WE’RE OFF!” in less than four years. In that short time many great things have happened, some of which set us up very nicely to see things we haven’t seen in my lifetime (boots on the Moon) and that no human has every seen except in science fiction (boots on Mars).

People ask me all the time: when will we go to Mars? It is both fantastic and frustrating to be forced to reply, “As soon as we want to!” It’s not that easy, but it is, fundamentally, that simple. Here’s how that goes: We collectively close our eyes, make a wish in the form of unwavering public support, open our eyes, and don’t blink for as long as it takes to get the job done. That resolved is how we went from *15 minutes* of total time in space at the time of Kennedy’s speech in May 1961 to two pairs of boots on the Moon in July of 1969. That’s how we went from commercial-cargo-only to launching-humans-like-now in 3.4 years. That’s how we’ll get to Mars: Go and we don’t stop going for it. Not for anything.

Before this decade is out, we will have many ways to get humans into space. As a result, the cost of doing so decreasing in a manner that should be reminiscent of the early days of air travel*: IF we keep pushing. If we keep supporting. If we keep investing.

At this stage, my MBA-brain wants to issue warnings of various kinds. “If you want to bring up the airline comparisons, don’t forget that the airlines were massively subsidized by the government and entirely regulated – including guaranteeing them all a profit for operating – until 1978.” True: We’re in the heavily regulated phase (aka investment honeymoon phase) with commercial space. As was true for the early airline industry, the US taxpayer has been very largely responsible for footing the bill at SpaceX. Commercial space proprietary tech was paid for largely by our tax dollars, to the tune of more than 7 billion of those dollars since 2000. As long as we can cut that cord without compromising safety – as we did with the airlines – we should be in ship-shape. We’ll find out soon enough.

Like the airlines, commercial space was a wise investment on our part. I say that not only as a space nerd but also as a business person. Beyond countless creating jobs, hope, and spin-off companies, We, The People, created an entire industry. Again. First, We built cars. Then airplanes. And now commercial space, from the ground up: all imperfect but important, world-changing inventions that continue to evolve. We did it! Out of nothing, our investment made something wonderful that, like a child, can now stand on its own and walk forward into the future.

Drew Morgan of NASA waves as he boards his Soyuz spacecraft for pre-launch preparations. Morgan, a graduate of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, will participate in a live Q&A from the International Space Station. NASA photo; Editor: Mark Garcia

For now, my MBA-brain and my space brain are each keeping one eye on Wednesday’s commercial crew launch. After watching the first US-based launch since 2011, they’ll switch to watching the Space Angels to see what’s coming down the pipe next. I can’t wait. I have no doubt that, like cars, airplanes and, yes, even commercial space vehicles, it will be complicated. It will be messy.

Here’s my hope for this time, next time, and all the times hereafter: that as we launch a new era of travel, we use our momentum to get ahead of the problems (pollution, infrastructure, inequality) that these inventions have historically created. That we use what we’ve worked for and invested in and yes sacrificed to achieve to push past the barriers that prevent people from building better lives. If we do, then we’ve won the game.

NASA Extravehicular Activity (EVA) trainer, Steve Vilano, talks with Astronaut Col. Tyler “Nick” Hague during a virtual reality training scenario for use of the Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue (SAFER) pack to return to the International Space Station at the virtual reality lab at Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, Tex., Apr. 26, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

To that end, do you see that VR rig in this photo? That’s the NASA SAFER EVA rescue system. If, before this decade is out, that tech isn’t being used to elevate/levitate my patients who are re-learning how walk, I’m going to personally start the company that does, using this tech or something very like it. There, I’ve said it out loud. Feel free to beat me to it, Earth-friends!

Or, if not, feel free to hold me to it.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kenney Space Center in Florida, the company’s 11th commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 5:07 p.m. EDT from the historic launch site now operated by SpaceX under a property agreement with NASA. The Dragon spacecraft will deliver 6,000 pounds of supplies, such as the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer, or NICER, designed to study the extraordinary physics of these stars, providing insights into their nature and behavior.

*Ticket prices fell 50% in 30 years.

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