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EXPERT COMMENT: Business Competition Could Fuel Another Space Race, says MU Instructor and Former Astronaut

April 25, 2013

Story Contact(s):
Timothy Wall, walltj@missouri.edu, 573-882-3346

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Humans compete against aliens to explore the universe in the sci-fi future of the upcoming Star Trek movie, just as during the Cold War the United States competed against the Soviet Union for space supremacy. In the present, instead of aliens or Soviets, businesses could launch another space race as they compete for profits, according to former astronaut Steven Nagel, instructor in the College of Engineering at the University of Missouri. However, Nagel noted that the source of those potential profits is still uncertain.

“Private companies now compete to transport materials to the International Space Station (ISS), but space entrepreneurs cannot depend on the ISS forever,” said Nagel, “A new space race could begin if businesses find more ways to profit from space travel. This would allow businesses to become financially independent of government contracts for supplying the space station. However, businesses need to reduce launch costs to increase space industries’ returns on investments.”

Space tourism first launched when multimillionaire Dennis Tito stayed on the ISS for eight days. Now, sub-orbital “joyrides” thrill aspiring space tourists with a few moments of zero-gravity, but to launch a tourist into true orbit, like Tito, requires 80 times more energy and is far more expensive. Only if launch costs drop will space tourism have a viable market with more customers, said Nagel.

Mining valuable materials from asteroids, the moon or other planets could be another means to fuel a corporate space race. However to make a good return on space mining, a material would have to be extremely valuable, according to Nagel. Similarly, factories in space would have to produce items that were highly difficult to manufacture on the Earth’s surface.

Nagel came to MU in 2011 after retiring from NASA. While an astronaut, Nagel completed four flights with a total of 723 logged hours in space. Nagel became an astronaut in 1979 after serving in the Air Force as a fighter jet pilot and trainer. He now teaches mechanical & aerospace engineering in MU’s College of Engineering and also is a retention specialist.

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