OPINION: Space Race – The Commercial Sequel, Newsline

JOHANNESBURG – The Equinox has passed. The Sun crossed the Celestial Equator of the Earth at mid-afternoon of September 22.

The sun crossed from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere to pour its heat on us for summer. At that point of the year 2020 a spacecraft had been successfully launched into space, on average every four days of the year. Launches are now so common that few of them even warrant a mention in the news.

Space traffic is at an all-time high. The “World As We Know It” is changing. Maybe more correctly it is the “world’s neighbourhood” which is changing. But this activity is changing the world and its outlook for business. How many business leaders realise this? Elon Musk, is launching Starlink satellites to form a space-based high-speed internet network. Musk’s company SpaceX has received permission to launch 12 000 of these satellites. Yes “thousand”. To date some 775 have been launched, with more due before the end of the year.

Currently if you want to create an internet link between Johannesburg and say, Tokyo, then the connection goes via high-speed fibre-optic links under the oceans. But Musk proposes to improve on this. His idea is that an internet signal will go straight up into space from Johannesburg, and then jump from one Starlink satellite to another across the planet, to Tokyo, and then go directly down to the ground. This will improve internet connectivity and speed dramatically. The speed will make the term “lightning speed” appear really slow. He figures that this will change the face of many business functions. I agree.

Meantime, technology developments for journeys to the Moon and Mars are far advanced. Nasa has named the next moon mission; Artemis. In Greek mythology Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo. Apollo, of course being the name of the first moon-landing mission of half a century ago. Artemis aims to land the first woman on the Moon by 2024.

The moon-lander which will go down to the moon’s surface, and then take off again, has so far completed two successful test launches and landings on Earth. A version of the same spacecraft will probably also carry out proposed Mars landings.

This rocket is based on the astounding technology developed by Musk, in which a rocket launches from Earth; rises up to space; releases its cargo; and then reverses back down to earth, and lands safely and undamaged. The rocket can then be reused, so reducing launch costs. The rocket can either land back on the launch pad that it took off from, or it can land on a floating platform out at sea.

One of these floating platforms has the amusing and romantic name of; ‘Of course I still love you.’ That name is fun, but it also illustrates the funky market-oriented attitude of Musk. From day-one he stated that he was approaching space as an economic activity. He may project a funky attitude to capture public imagination, but he is focused on being profitable. His reusable, reversing rockets have resulted in dramatically reduced launch costs. So governments and companies of the world can now profitably launch all sorts of satellites which were only sci-fi dreams two decades ago.

There is serious talk of mining on the moon and mars. Quantities of water have been identified on both the Moon and Mars, which has obviously completely changed the outlook for permanently manned bases. The TV transmissions that we will receive from the Moon and Mars, when the landings take place, will be spectacular. The first moon-landing was only able to beam back a fuzzy black and white image because that was the limit of the technology at the time. In contrast, perfect colour TV transmission from Mars is now possible and is already taking place regularly.

Few people realise that there are now people living permanently in space, with a regular ‘bus service’ from Earth, exchanging crew and sending up supplies.

The rocket which can currently carry the largest load to orbit is the Falcon Heavy, which has 27 engines, and can carry the weight of four or five municipal buses. Entire interplanetary assemblies can now be lifted into orbit. To make a point, Elon Musk launched his red Tesla car into space and set it on a course towards Mars, complete with a dummy spaceman driver at the wheel, and the song ‘Space Oddity’ by David Bowie, playing on the car’s stereo.

When early explorers like Vasco da Gama and Bartolomeu Dias sailed tiny wooden ships on perilous voyages around the Cape of Good Hope, many worried that they would fall off the edge of the Earth. Others realised the commercial value of finding a sea route to the valuable spice trade of the Far East. In due course the Dutch East India Company profited handsomely from exploiting the Cape Sea Route, and incidentally developed Cape Town as part of its business plan.

I wonder when we will see the Mars Mining Development Company Inc; or the Lunar Precision Electronics company; or maybe, Moon Medical Supplies; evolving to take advantage of the natural lunar vacuum and germ-free environment, which cost so much to establish and maintain on Earth.

The Artemis Moon landing system is currently far more advanced on its project timeline than was the voyage of Bartolomeu Dias on the Portuguese project timeline, at the time when da Gama reached the Cape.

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants, a project management company. Stratek@pixie.co.za