The future of commercial spaceflight has the power to change our lives.
Space is undergoing a revolution in access and attainability — and may soon cease to be a distant frontier visited only by the select few. The past several years have brought about dozens of milestones in civilian space travel. In 2021 alone, a film crew visited the ISS, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic completed successful suborbital trips and the first crewed orbital mission without astronauts was achieved. In addition, both the youngest and oldest astronauts were minted, as well as the first openly LGBTQ+ crew member.
Some dismiss these accomplishments as the hobbies of the ultra-rich. But it’s not the first time a novel form of transportation started out as a pastime for those who could afford it. As Derek Webber, director of Spaceport Associates, points out in Space Tourism: Its History, Future and Importance, the earliest airplanes were used primarily by business people and the military. Three decades later, tickets were a fraction of their original cost and air travel became a common activity.
Commercial airplanes revolutionized access on Earth — bringing medicine and supplies to remote locations, bolstering international trade and reducing historically dangerous and lengthy journeys to mere hours. Similarly, the future of commercial spaceflight has the power to change our lives. It can help us reimagine our place in the universe and our connection to one another. Beyond this shift in values, increased interest in space dramatically holds the capacity to transform education, science and our resilience as a species.
An Overview Effect for All
After astronaut Edgar Mitchell became the sixth person to walk on the moon, he reported experiencing the overview effect, a topic I’ve written about previously. Mitchell said, “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.”
What would happen if everyone could experience a similar revelation? It may not even require sending everyone to the lunar surface. Journalist Leigh Ann Henion recalled feeling a comparable emotion when floating on G-Force One, a zero-gravity aircraft, and describing how it inspires awe. Such awe is growing more accessible to those historically excluded from adventures in space. Organizations like AstroAccess have reimagined spacesuits and spacecraft to accommodate people with disabilities. Others, like Space4Women and ELSO, champion young women and people of color in related fields.
As the space industry expands, the opportunity to foster stronger connections across national borders, continental divides and cultural differences will expand with it.
A Renewed Sense of Wonder
Returning to the moon and getting to Mars in the 2030s were achievements decades in the making. Dedicated scientists, researchers and engineers have spent years mapping out countless possibilities for these missions, and future generations will need to continue the work.
While many adults would pass on an all-expenses-paid trip to the moon, 55% of Gen-Z respondents to an Axios poll said they would take that offer. Younger generations are enthusiastic about the return of crewed missions to space, and space tourism is important to maintaining that interest.
Supporting K-12 and college students in STEM courses should be at the forefront of aerospace companies’ missions, as I’ve written about previously. A robust space economy requires a wide range of participants, from medical professionals to political science scholars.
Already, calls for robotic prototypes to construct habitats on Mars have driven young people to test the limits of existing 3-D technology. Other programs, like the Space Resources courses at The Colorado School of Mines, are training students in processes that will directly impact their future as low-Earth orbit becomes the starting point for an entirely new economic sector.
Connecting students to the real-world impact of their studies will renew respect for human accomplishments to date—and inspire unimaginable breakthroughs.
Breakthrough MedTech Treatments
Going to space isn’t all spectacular views. Efforts to send humans to Mars and further out also require efficient, portable medical interventions. After all, there are no 24-hour emergency clinics on the Red Planet.
That’s why doctors and medical equipment manufacturers are finding unique ways to heal injuries in space while keeping costs, weight and storage needs low. For instance, the FirstAid Handheld Bioprinter, under review for future space missions, uses biological ink from a patient’s cells to generate skin bandages. The result is a paste to seal wounds almost immediately. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency is testing 3D printing of cartilage and bone in the event of fractures. (In space, humans lose a scary amount of bone mass to resorption.)
These devices could be essential to aid space travelers in dire situations as well as improve conditions for those injured on Earth. Such handheld technology could revolutionize paramedical work, save hikers in remote parks and assist refugees escaping war-torn countries.
After the ISS retires in 2031, a private space station will likely continue the crucial stem cell research that has led to life-changing drug therapies for people with diseases like cancer.
Commitment to Humankind
A common critique of space exploration is that it diverts money and resources from solving social issues on Earth. This idea persists despite the relatively low allocation of funds from governments to their respective space agencies.
Regardless of the price of these ventures, building spacefaring economies and protecting Earth can be goals that go hand in hand. Since the mid-nineteenth century, spin-off technologies from space travel have benefited people at home, especially when it comes to environmental protections and the universal standard of living.
Satellites are key to mapping climate data, conducting weather forecasting and coordinating disaster management. As organizations and space agencies continue to collaborate, programs like Climate TRACE are increasing data transparency for environmental researchers around the world. Other contributions include improvements to cochlear implants, firefighting equipment and water purification processes.
As more people visit space and invest in the future, who’s to say what we’ll invent and uncover by the end of this century? Early commercial space travel is just one step closer to a future that could provide everyone an opportunity to be among the stars.
Originally published in Newsweek