Forty-five years ago, Apollo 11 carried the first humans to land on the Moon.
Today, many things about going to the Moon remain the same. In fact, our ability to send humans to the Moon through powerful human-rated rockets like the Saturn 5 no longer exists. Our ability to escape from Earth’s gravitational well on a journey to our nearest neighbor died with the Apollo program. At best, the only potential way to get from Earth to the Moon is through a three-day launch on a modified Soyuz rocket — the same rocket that propelled Yuri Gagarin more than 50 years ago on the first human spaceflight.
Why then does it feel like the space industry hasn’t progressed much in almost half a century?
For one, a major change has occurred in the motivation for the United States to marshal the resources for such an endeavor. It was the competition with the former Soviet Union that inspired the U.S. government to devote almost 5 percent of the federal budget to the space race. Today, NASA receives roughly 0.5 percent. Today, the same motivations would never pass Congress or find funding for another space race.
However, another major change has occurred during the last four and a half decades. The price performance of computing has increased by a factor of a billion. Those early Silicon Valley investments for the space race — aerospace, and information technology — yielded a rapid doubling of computing capability every 18-24 months. In the Apollo computer, the 2,000 bytes of memory was a hand-woven criss-cross of wires. Calculations for landing on the Moon were performed roughly 50,000 times a second.
Today, laptops and phones have memory measured in gigabytes, and speeds in gigahertz — each millions of times more powerful than the Apollo computer. In fact, our smartphones are so powerful that NASA has experimented and tested them to power nanosatellites launched into space. Today, we take for granted the capabilities of our hand-held phones and use the device as an extension of our brainpower.
What does this mean for space exploration and development? The energies and speeds needed to fly to the Moon are still the same. But now a student with a laptop, using available software, can calculate accurate trajectories to the Moon in less than a minute. Instruments to measure accelerations, orientation, star positions and spacecraft systems that previously cost millions of dollars to develop have all been miniaturized and demonetized. Spacecraft and rockets are being designed with small teams using computer-aided design tools. Experiments that use to take years, sometimes decades, to develop and launch can now be sent up to space via small companies that piggyback on larger launch companies’ capabilities. Even colleges and high school students are building and operating small nanosats in Earth orbit.
Entrepreneurial companies are developing robotic lunar landers for commercial flights to the Moon while others take on audacious plans to mine asteroids for resources. Rockets remain big and expensive, but they are gradually coming down in cost thanks to private entrepreneurs like Elon Musk at Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
Opportunities exist for exponentially advancing technologies to be applied to many areas of space exploration and the commercial development of space. Companies birthed out of Singularity University’s community, such as Made in Space, Infinity Aerospace, Escape Dynamics, Nanosatisfi (now called Spire), Satellogic, DIY Rockets and Planet Labs, give rise to a new breed of entrepreneurs riding the do-it-yourself movement. From 3-D printers in space to space labs in a box, or an effort to build the biggest network of remote sensing satellites in the world, these companies are no longer waiting for the big, bureaucratic and slow-paced space agencies or traditional huge aerospace contractors to open up access to space.
Forty-five years after that first “giant leap for mankind,” we are on the verge of opening the space frontier to the rest of humanity.
Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom is chief impact officer and executive vice president of operations for Singularity University, an educational institute and business accelerator based at the NASA Ames Research Center. She spent two decades in the private space sector working on program development and operations, and she is co-author of the book “Realizing Tomorrow: The Path to Private Spaceflight.”