Apollo 11: A Future in Space, Thanks to Our Past

By Ranjan Sikand, Wind River Intern

A chorus of alarms serenaded the nervous astronauts as the Eagle lunar module descended toward the moon’s surface. The tension was palpable, and the shrill ringing only added to their worries. In the final seconds of descent, Neil Armstrong was forced to take manual control, guiding the module past the jagged edge of a ray crater to a gentle landing in Mare Tranquillitatis – the Sea of Tranquility. Seven hours later, with a live audience of over 600 million people watching from a window-mounted camera, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface. Buzz Aldrin joined him a few minutes later, attributing “eons of lifelessness” to what he described as “magnificent desolation” spread endlessly before him.

True desolation, however, was only known by one of the astronauts: Michael Collins. While Armstrong and Aldrin explored the lunar surface, Collins orbited the moon in the command module, alone, for over a day, earning himself the name of “the loneliest man in the universe.” During his orbit he revolved around the far side of the moon, losing contact with both Earth and his fellow astronauts as he rotated slowly through the vast emptiness of space, left to grapple with solitude and a growing sense of fragility. He recalls looking back toward the Earth, relative to the endless expanse around it, saying: “I saw this tiny little object. Somehow, beyond its size, and its gloss, it projects this feeling of fragility. It hit me: this is a fragile, little, tiny thing. Beautiful, shiny, though it may be, it’s very fragile.”

Back on Earth, the broadcast left television viewers with almost the exact opposite feeling. Viewers recall a sense of unity and national pride that came along with watching the moon landing, with an almost universal audience; every single TV in New York City was tuned in to the broadcast. America, in particular, was united behind these three men with a burning new passion to understand the beyond, and travel to the stars.

The founder and CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, was born shortly after the moon landing, but remembers the attitudes that the landing created. He attributes his involvement in the space industry to the Apollo 11, saying that he is “not sure SpaceX would exist if not for Apollo 11.” He continues, saying that his inspiration in creating the company was in what had not happened; he “kept expecting that we would continue beyond Apollo 11, that we would have a base on the moon, that we would be sending people to Mars.” Instead, funding to NASA has fallen from 4.4% of the federal budget in 1966 to approximately 0.5% last year; as a result, space exploration has ground to a halt, and dreams of the last frontier have remained dreams. Musk intends to spur governmental involvement by sending a manned mission to Mars by 2022. He hopes to ignite a fire in the heart of the space community, and give them the “sense that the future [is going to] be better than the past.” He wants to reignite the hunger for exploration and the desire to reach the stars that he remembers from when he was young. His corporation already boasts many landmark achievements in spaceflight, including the first successful launch of a commercial payload, the first commercial vehicle to berth with the International Space Station, and the first successful use of reusable rocket parts in the Falcon 9. He hopes to add significantly to that in the next few years.

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a different opinion. Contrary to Musk’s goals, Tyson says that governmental investment in space travel is the only way commercial uses arise; he gives the example that “the British East India Company didn’t discover America. Columbus did,” because corporate investment “would have been an unwise investment” without knowing “where the trade winds are, and where are the hostiles and where are the friendlies.” Once Columbus was able to establish a presence in the Americas, trading companies were able to make their own expeditions to extract profits from the new landscape.  Spaceflight has followed a similar pattern, as government-backed missions, such as the Sputnik 1 and the Apollo 11, have preceded commercial missions like the COMSAT Early Bird or the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, as they set the precedent and allow companies to discover a path to revenue. Tyson does not believe that a commercially-backed mission to Mars is likely, as it would be rejected by investors without a clear path to profit. Musk hopes to prove him wrong.

Investors are willing to provide funding to space-related projects, so long as they prove they have an opportunity to boast returns. One such entity is the investment fund Space Angels. The fund is focused entirely on space-related companies, and have funded projects from companies like OneWeb and SpaceX. In one of their quarterly publications from 2018, they detail many market trends in the commercial space industry. They estimated a $22.3 billion dollar total investment in the commercial space sector, with almost $7 in the last two years and $2.9 billion in the first two quarters of 2018 alone. Larger, splashier entries like OneWeb dominate the list of recipients, but over 476 companies have received funds, a number that has almost tripled over the last 5 years. Overall, Morgan Stanley values the global space industry at approximately $350 billion, with the potential to grow to anywhere from $600 billion to $1.75 trillion over the next 20 years. In short, the commercial possibilities in the space sector have not been overstated.

This explosion in the space industry has been aided by developments such as those outlined in our podcast, The New Space Race. Smaller satellites, known as SmallSats, CubeSats, or NanoSats, and the use of consumer off-the-shelf (COTS) products, have made smaller investments viable, allowing more companies to become involved. Even non-astronomical companies have looked to the stars as the next step of their expansion, such as the Amazon-funded satellite constellation I mentioned in my last blog. Unsurprisingly, Morgan Stanley pins satellites as approximately 33% of the private space economy, as they require a smaller investment while still providing valuable data or communications. These, too, can be attributed to, and follow examples set by, an original government investment; commercial giants then devised a route to profit and made inroads into the industry.

The legacy left by Apollo 11 has given rise to far more than a sense of national pride; it birthed an entire industry. The excitement created by the landing instilled a desire and a dream in future generations, and has been a huge part of the reason that the space industry is a viable sector today. Though it was a substantial investment, it has given rise to even more substantial returns, and as the sector continues to evolve and grow, we can look back on Apollo 11 as the origin.

I know as an intern here at Wind River I’m learning more than I can have imagined about the role of software in space. If you’re like me and want more on the changing face of the space industry, check out Wind River’s podcast, blogs, and newsletter: The New Space Race.

 

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