Space exploration is an expensive dream: does the continent have what it takes to compete?
Historically, only countries like the United States and Russia had the human talent and financial resources necessary to carry out such an enterprise. It was a task powered by human curiosity, cold wars, and recently, the need of finding other habitable homes for the human race. But times have changed, and few nations have the luxury of investing in space exploration, even considering the advances in knowledge and technology that usually come along with it. Could Latin America ever be a part of these kinds of projects?
With budgets such as NASA’s in 2014 of $17.7 billion dollars, it is not a mystery that space exploration programs are beginning to receive strong opposition along with budget cuts. From an economic point of view, this begins to pose a problem, since people perceive that those same resources could be used in other “more urgent” causes such as education, infrastructure, or medical services, among others. As social necessities that require immediate intervention become more common, we have to ask ourselves: what is the future of space exploration if governments are becoming less willing to invest in it?
The private sector of space exploration
You have probably heard of Elon Musk, the South African that began selling videogames as a kid and is now the CEO of Tesla, and who is also commonly compared to the comicbook character Tony Stark. From high-speed electric cars to rockets capable of landing vertically, Musk has been breaking preconceptions of what can and cannot be done in recent years.
In 2002 Musk founded SpaceX with the purpose of creating commercial rockets capable of transporting passengers to space. The planning and vision with which he presented the project, in terms of the impact it would have in the industry, landed him a contract with NASA to take cargo to the ISS. Currently, SpaceX has contracts amounting up to 10 billion dollars.
*So could companies like SpaceX be the future of the space industry?*
Recent events point to the private sector taking over the task of space exploration in the future. With entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos from Amazon with his company Blue Origin, and Richard Branson from the Virgin Group with his company Virgin Galactic joining the movement, the space industry seems to be making a clear move into the private sector. Other private initiatives include Bigelow Aerospace by Robert Bigelow, the Mars One Project by Lansdorp and Wielders, and Boeing’s new aerospace division.
For Latin America, what does it take to be a part of the space industry?
Could Latin America play an important role in space exploration? The answer is yes. By transitioning from a predominantly State-run industry to one managed by the private sector, the continent is presented with a special opportunity. Since developing the space industry at a State level would be difficult because of the numerous social challenges it still faces, the privatization trend could lead to the creation of Latin American companies that are prepared to take on the industry. And lets not forget that Latin America has already been participating actively in space exploration through scientific facilities such as the Cerro Tololo Observatory, the Paranal Observatory, and the Gemini Observatory, among many others.
So what would a Latin American company need in order to take part in the space industry? Although there is no certain path a company can take to be successful in this kind of endeavor, there are some key characteristics that many of the companies who are already doing it have in common. These characteristics are the following:
- An exceptional leader: at the head of the company is an outspoken dreamer who is ready to challenge conventional ideas and trends. This person is the motor and face of the company, and is willing to do anything to achieve their goals.
- Human talent: In the old days, aerospace talent tended to cluster around government agencies like the NASA and the JAXA, but the growing private sector has focused on bringing those same highly specialized individuals to work for them. The private industry is now recruiting all types of professional profiles, from physicists, to biologists, to architects.
- Financial muscle: It is no surprise that the space industry requires huge investments that will probably not yield any returns for a number of years, if they yield any. Having a dependable financial muscle to rely on is vital if a company plans on adventuring into this kind of endeavor.
Space exploration is highly complex. This has lead companies from the private sector to specialize in very specific aspects of it, including space tourism, rocket development, space colonization, and interplanetary security systems, among many others.
The question remains: could Latin America have an upcoming role in space exploration?
Latin American Post | Felipe Botero
Copy edited by Laura Rocha Rueda