Startups could hold the key to space travel’s future

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Sure, NASA’s budgets have been steadily shrinking. But Jim Bell, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, who was also involved in the Mars Rover mission, sees a future in space for a whole lot more of us, thanks to private startups.

Bell concedes that while young people aren’t as excited about government programs as their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, but he feels that they are excited to work for and learn more about space startups: quirkier and riskier (sometimes very risky) groups like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.

Bell sees these companies as pioneers in a new frontier; they won’t be going to the moon or journeying to Mars just yet, but they may well extend our economic sphere into low-Earth orbit. Today, lots of investment is slipping the surly bonds of Earth, with investors and entrepreneurs seeing big money to be made from satellites, mining, and tourism.

Space tourism is something Bell is particularly bullish on. He views space as the next hip “adventure” destination. And there’s a real desire for it, as evidenced by the fact that Virgin Galactic has soldhundreds of very expensive tickets for possible spaceflights. Bell believes it won’t be too long (“decades, not hundreds of years”) before the Hiltons and Marriotts of the world partner with space start-ups to offer space “hotel” packages.

This might all seem far-fetched and a bit too much like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but Bell has a broad perspective.

“Imagine doing this interview at the turn of the 20th century, asking: what do you predict [about the future]? And I said to you: in 75 years, you’ll be able to go anywhere on the planet in one or two trips. You would say: that’s crazy, that’s insane. We’re sitting here at the beginning of the 21st century, and what I’m saying is that in 75 years, you’ll be able to go anywhere in the solar system.”

Bell doesn’t discount the myriad dangers and technological challenges of space travel. After all: “We’re not made for space. We’re made for a nice thick atmosphere, loaded with oxygen, on a water-rich planet.” There are radiation issues, gravity issues, and psychological issues, all of which are real and dangerous.

But Bell is still excited about space and the wonders it can offer. In his recent book,”The Interstellar Age: Inside the 40 Year Voyager Mission,” he focuses on scientists and visionaries who’ve worked to illuminate the solar system. Indeed, they organized their lives according to the probe’s voyage. Bell “talked to many people on the Voyager team, who knew there would be a several year gap between planetary encounters, and that’s when they got married, and that’s when they had their kids. They knew they had this gap in time.”

And it’s that idea, of our lives increasingly dominated by forces away from our planet, that Bell sees becoming humanity’s reality.

This story first aired as an interview on PRI’s Innovation Hub.

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