It’s been a big year in space…just ask William Shatner. On Nov. 23, NASA launched the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, the first planetary defense mission for the space agency, which will travel to near-Earth asteroids and crash itself into the smaller object in an attempt to alter the rock's orbit. In February the Perseverance rover successfully landed on Mars to search for past life on the planet and collect soil and rock samples. The world also witnessed a billionaire battle in which Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson took a spin in their suborbital rockets, kicking off a new era of space tourism controlled by the private sector. Doug Ingram, senior instructor in TCU’s department of physics and astronomy, answers questions about the reinvigorated fascination with space travel and why he thinks the United States will ultimately win the race to the moon.
According to a new audit by the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG), the Artemis program is projected to reach a total of $93 billion by 2025. What is the purpose of this mission?
The primary purpose of the Artemis program is to establish a long-term presence on the moon for a few different reasons. For one, it gives us a chance to ensure that the first woman and the first person of color walk on the moon. Secondly, it gives us a chance to explore the moon in much greater depth (and with much more sophisticated instruments) than we have ever done in the past. Finally, it gives us some basic practice for the kinds of technical and engineering challenges we will need to overcome before we send crewed missions to Mars.
What do you think contributes to the timing of the billionaire space race, and how could space travel controlled by the private sector be problematic or beneficial?
Thanks largely due to innovations inspired by or developed by NASA, launching payloads into orbit has gotten more affordable over time. That plus the apparent market out there for global cellular coverage for communication and internet access has made it economically viable to put a fleet of enabling satellites in orbit. Space travel controlled by the private sector may be beneficial if it leads to further innovation that is freely shared so that space launches become easier for everyone. It will not likely provide a significant economic benefit to humanity since these are for-profit projects rather than philanthropic, and access to the satellite technology will be highly constrained by cost. In addition, the fleet of low orbiting satellites is likely to grossly impact our dark skies and our ability to observe the universe from the ground. The loss of the dark sky resource to the general public without any apparently thought of compensation, mitigation or consequences is very troubling and raises important ethical questions that must be addressed quickly. And what if the increasing number of low-orbit launches leads to expanding debris fields due to accidents or collisions? Who will be held responsible? Is there any thought of how to fix such a problem, if it occurs, or will it be the usual "privatize the profits, socialize the losses" strategy when it comes to the public domain?
Some are under the misconception that NASA and SpaceX compete against one another. How are these entities fundamentally different?
My understanding of SpaceX is that their stated goal is to reduce space transportation costs, which implies any innovation will be freely shared with public entities like NASA. I hope that turns out to be the case. NASA's goal is the general expansion of human knowledge through the exploration of space, while SpaceX is more specifically focused on commercial applications and exploration/colonization of Mars. So I don't necessarily see a conflict there.
With China and Russia collaborating and competing against the U.S. in a race back to the moon, what are some of our advantages?
I think our larger economy allows us to invest a lot more resources into the exploration of space. NASA's track record when it comes to crewed missions to the moon is unparalleled, and the institutional knowledge and experience of NASA is much greater in this area compared to Russia or China.
Learn more about TCU’s department of physics & astronomy.