Entries in Space (3)


Billionaire Entrepreneur Wants to Put Man on Mars

Digital Vision/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- As the Mars rover Curiosity, a $2.5 billion robot the size of a Mini Cooper, touched down last night, one billionaire was already planning the next logical step -- sending humans there.

"I'm confident at this point that it can be done," Elon Musk told ABC’s Nightline in an interview at SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles. "I think we'll be able to send, probably, the first people to Mars in roughly 12 to 15 years. That's my estimate."

Musk, who made his billions as an Internet entrepreneur, wants to bring Silicon Valley ingenuity to a space exploration process that, until recently, has been something only governments tried to tackle.

He entered the space race in 2010 with his company's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule, reusable spacecraft built with the goal of taking astronauts into space and returning them safely to Earth.

Musk said he is aware he has competitors in this new space race -- one reason why SpaceX does not patent any of the top-secret technology it creates.

"The rockets we're building right now could certainly send probes to Mars, like the Mars rovers and that kind of thing," he said. "But the rockets we hope to build in the future are the ones that could take people and cargo to Mars and establish a Martian base."

And he has big plans for Mars -- not just taking people there, but making it possible for people to thrive there and even establish businesses.

"Mars is the only place in the solar system where it's possible for life to become multi-planetarian," Musk said. "We could make Mars like Earth…it's more than our life raft, it's like backing up the biosphere."

One of the biggest challenges of colonizing the red planet is making the trip affordable for the average American, he said, which is "extremely difficult."

While Musk's outer space ambitions may sound bold, he has a track record. After leaving his native South Africa at 17, he went into online commerce with his brother. One of his companies is known today as PayPal. That company brought him his first billion dollars, which he poured into his electric car company, Tesla, and an energy services company Solar City, two companies now at the cutting edge of renewable energy.

Watch the full story on ABC's Nightline tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET/PT

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Space Junk: NASA Urged to Find Way to Clean Up the Mess

Comstock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- There is so much man-made space junk orbiting the earth, according to scientists who’ve done the calculations, that even if NASA never launched another rocket, the problem would continue to worsen.

How can that be? A report this week from the National Academy of Sciences offered an answer: “Some scenarios generated by the agency’s meteoroid and orbital debris models show that debris has reached a ‘tipping point,’ with enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures.”

The Air Force Space Command currently tracks 22,000 pieces of space junk—spent satellites, parts of nose cones, booster fragments, pieces that blew free when satellites separated from the rockets that launched them, and so forth. It’s troublesome, expensive, and hard on the nerves for them to watch it all. A couple of times a year they have to call NASA with an alert for the Space Station astronauts to take cover; they move to the Russian Soyuz capsules they use as lifeboats until the danger passes.

How much should us on Earth care? We get weather forecasts, GPS readings, TV transmissions, and a fair amount of Internet data via satellite, and while the odds of any one satellite getting pulverized are still low, they are expensive to replace. The situation was made substantially worse by the Chinese in 2007, who used an old weather satellite for target practice for a military missile. They succeeded and thousands of shards of satellite are still orbiting the planet every 90 minutes, putting astronauts and other satellites in danger.

What to do? There are no simple answers. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, released a report earlier this year, with all sorts of blue-sky ideas about giant nets or magnets in space to catch debris. DARPA exists to think outside the box, but its principal suggestion was to avoid creating space junk in the first place, and it’s a little late for that.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


NASA Gambling Space Program on Unproven Companies?

ABC News Radio(WASHINGTON) -- Members of Congress Thursday signaled they are growing concerned with NASA's decision to bank on two commercial start-up companies to carry cargo, and possibly astronauts, to the International Space Station once the space shuttle program retires this summer.

NASA has committed billions of dollars and assigned the risky task of delivering supplies to the station to two companies that were unproven in the rocket business, but that have both promised to develop a less costly formula for travel to space: California-based SpaceX and Virginia-based Orbital Sciences. Government auditors reported to Congress that both companies have experienced delays and, at least initially, both underestimated the amount of money it would take to begin launching rockets.

Rep. Ralph Hall, a Texas Republican, told members gathered at a hearing on commercial space program Thursday that he is worried NASA is relying too heavily on the two companies.

"NASA…is now gambling the future of space station on the success two very new launch systems," Hall told members of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. "I simply regret that there continues to be so much uncertainty about our nation's ability to reliably get cargo to Station with the final Shuttle flight now less than two months away."

With the Space Shuttle Endeavor currently docked with the space station, and only one more shuttle flight scheduled, NASA officials and outside experts have agreed that the storied American space program is about to enter a murky period known as The Gap. It will be the first time since 1981 that the U.S. will completely lack the ability, on its own, to put astronauts into space. And NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told ABC News he is working hard to limit the duration of the gap.

His strategy has been to focus NASA's energy on future plans for deep space exploration, while relying heavily on commercial outfits such as SpaceX to lift satellites into orbit and service the space station.

Senior executives from both companies told members of Congress Thursday they are confident in their ability to take on those tasks, and said they are on target to mount test launches of the rockets they are developing later this year. They predicted they will begin shuttling supplies to the space station in 2012.

SpaceX President Gwynn Shotwell noted that when the company successfully launched a test flight last year, orbited a capsule around the earth, and recovered it upon reentry, it had accomplished something that had only previously been achieved by six nations, and never by a private company.

William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, told the committee members their plans, while ambitious, were realistic. At the same time, he tried to temper that optimism by reminding the House members that space travel, no matter how routine it may seem, is never easy, and they should expect some delays.

"Establishing a regular flight rate after the initial flights will not be easy," Gertenmaiar said. "I think both companies are well prepared to move forward. We're prepared for the problems that will occur. We anticipated these inevitable start up challenges associated with a technologically ambitious endeavor."

Those concerned about the risks of relying on commercial companies for space travel, Shotwell said, should keep in mind that the Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon capsule "were each developed from a blank sheet to first launch in four and a half years for approximately $300 million each."

Several members, however, continued to voice their concerns about NASA's approach. Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo, a Mississippi Republican, said he wanted the companies to be forthcoming about their progress, and about the costs of their endeavors.

"I want to remind NASA and the commercial partners that you are spending taxpayer money, and lots of it. So you will not be exempt from oversight and financial scrutiny," Palazzo said. "NASA has spent $1.25 billion over the last five years and it is my firm hope that before the year is out we will have real proof that this investment has been worthwhile."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio