The future of space is commercial, according to Bruce Pittman of NASA Ames Research Center, who outlined new plans for the space program in his presentation “How Billionaires Are Changing the Space Program” at the Morning Forum of Los Altos Feb. 4.
Pittman, director of commercial space development at NASA Ames and professor at Santa Clara University, described the exploration achievements of NASA, offering a historical perspective on space travel from its inception to the present day. Beginning more than 200 years ago with the first Industrial Revolution, he discussed the long but steady march of discovery.
Pittman traced the space program from the Industrial Revolution to the creation of power with the natural resources of wind, water and steam. He discussed the evolution of discovery and the beginnings of entrepreneurship as science was turned into industry. Scientific discovery evolved into steam engines, better transportation and, in the early 1900s, the early days of aviation and the contributions of the Wright Brothers. The first commercial flights occurred in 1936.
According to Pittman, early space visionaries included Robert Goddard, who developed the first liquid fuel rocket, and Wernher von Braun, a pioneer of rocket and space technology.
In the 1950s, Pittman said, Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, space movies and Robert Heinlein and other science-fiction writers tantalized public interest. The Russian Yuri Gregorian and the first manned space flight, Pittman added, enflamed the will of Americans to reach the moon first and encouraged the intense focus on discoveries of space.
Pittman noted that while government has been the base support of space programs, recently private individuals began to take notice and saw commercial application possibilities. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was 5 years old when men walked on the moon. When he became a success and had the money to explore, Bezos began to think about commerce in space.
He started developing rockets and had a vision to develop the infrastructure for future entrepreneurs in space.
Elon Musk came to the U.S. with $20. Pittman said that when Musk, Tesla co-founder, had the resources years later, his interest led to the founding of SpaceX in 2002. His effort to develop a reusable rocket failed three times to launch but was successful on the fourth try – which was fortunate, given that Musk was down to his last money. Musk’s innovations have opened the potential for massive deliveries in space in a relatively economical manner, according to Pittman. Musk suggests that future rockets could take 100 tons in a single launch and bring 50 tons back, could be refueled in space and would also be reusable.
Musk, Bezos and Pittman have visions of populations in space. Pittman said they believe this could be one way of solving the environmental problems of Earth.
Pittman outlined some of the possibilities such developments could create, and said the federal government is cooperating with private industry to make success possible.
Potential projects in space include mining, using metals found on asteroids, space colonies, creating worldwide internet service and freeing the Earth from overuse.
But challenges remain, Pitt- man said, chief among them: Who owns space? He also mentioned the worry about hydrocarbons in the upper atmosphere, orbital debris threatening space populations, light pollution on Earth, the issues of populations in space, political ramifications and war in space.
Pittman ended his presentation with a quote from Harriet Tubman: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars, to change the world.”
Morning Forum is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. Subscriptions are open to new members. For membership details and more information, visit morningforum.org.