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Private space travel pioneers explain why space exploration is about more than putting people into orbit

December 1, 2021, 6:30 PM UTC

In mid-September of this year, 14 humans were in space orbiting Earth. By comparison, from the first manned spaceflight in 1961, it took nearly four years before that many humans had orbited the globe in total.

The new record came when four amateur astronauts on SpaceX’s Inspiration4 joined 10 professional astronauts already in orbit at the time. 

“Fourteen people in orbit at one time—that’s not a big number at all,” said Jared Isaacman, the billionaire entrepreneur who paid for the flight and served as its commander. “One hundred years from now, you’ve got to be measuring it in the millions.”

Space is being democratized. That began with the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million prize for the first nongovernment spaceflight, which came in 2004.

“The X Prize…opened up the entire door for commercial space exploration, which isn’t just about putting people into space,” said Isaacman, CEO of Shift4, at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech summit Tuesday in Half Moon Bay, Calif. “It’s payloads, it’s satellites.

“Private industry can be phenomenal allocators of capital,” he added. “That kind of fresh perspective is what’s making things that were previously only contemplated in science fiction a reality now—like landing rockets back on ships, because why would you want to throw them away?”

As SpaceX and others in the private sector are demonstrating, space is literally open for business

Lowering the cost of access will further spur innovation that can benefit humanity, said Anousheh Ansari, who sponsored the X Prize with her husband, Hamid Ansari, and her brother-in-law Amir Ansari. She is currently applying that competition’s crowdsourcing approach to some of humanity’s biggest challenges, such as a $100 million purse for a sustainable way to pull carbon from the atmosphere or ocean.

In 2006, Ansari caught a ride on Soyuz TMA-9, a Russian mission to the International Space Station, making her the fourth civilian in space. She spent nine days aboard the ISS, participating in experiments for the European Space Agency.

“Ultimately, I think, we need to come up with a different way of going to space,” she said during a conference session with Isaacman. “Not with just rockets, but a different way that would lower the cost significantly.”

Whether that solution is space elevators or something else, it has to enable regular, affordable travel, she said. “Something that people can buy a ticket [for], like a business-class ticket, and be able to go to space.”

Ansari added, “I would look at it as a transportation issue, not a technology issue.”

That makes space launch vehicles a major opportunity for investors, Isaacman noted. Whatever is in orbit, he said, “somebody’s got to put it there, and that’s a big challenge.”

In the meantime, low-orbit satellites could bring high-speed wireless connectivity to the hundreds of millions of people currently in areas with slow or no access. In 2018, SpaceX carried Bangabandhu Satellite-1 into orbit, significantly increasing wireless connectivity to Bangladesh. 

“You’re giving access to information, which I think is foundational to solving a lot of humanity’s challenges,” Isaacman said. “It’s such an exciting time in space. It’s definitely the second great age coming on.”

Correction, Dec. 1, 2021: This article has been updated to correct the name of Anousheh Ansari’s husband, Hamid, and clarify the relationship between her and Amir, her brother-in-law.

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