The competition for access to outer space by private companies is experiencing an advance never seen before. For more than a decade, companies Space X, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have sought to make space travel more and more common for anyone who can afford it and, also, colonize the Moon and Mars.
Behind the space activities that have been generated from the private sector by the companies Space X, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, there are also important advances in research and development of technologies.
The New Space, as this new race to reach space with private contributions is called, is making it possible to save many of the aerospace instances that were previously in the power of government agencies or bodies.
Argentina for its part has been no stranger to this global evolution, presenting decades of experience in this field. Aerospace engineer Pablo de León, professor and director of the Department of Space Studies at the University of North Dakota, in the United States, has worked together with NASA to design the suits and habitat that will be used by astronauts who will travel to Mars in the next years. In a dialogue with The Press, the specialist referred to the challenges and opportunities that this career represents for the country.
-What do the goals of the space race led by Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson mean for humanity?
-I think it is much more than a competition between billionaires. One sometimes reading articles where there are people who criticize, in some way, the excessive wealth of these people and see it as a kind of whim that they want to go into space and they do it in this way.
-How do you see it?
-Sometimes I think that maybe someone also criticized the Wright brothers and more than one must have said “ These people are crazy wasting their money ”, What are you doing. What happens now is that these are the first steps where one does not know where this is going to end and in what way.
Possibly, it is going to move away from the original objective, which in the case of Bezos and Branson is space tourism, and it is going to become a technological spill due to the amount of developments that are generated as a result of this. I see it as a good thing, without a doubt these people who have had an interest in space issues are inspired by the achievements of the space race of the 60s and 70s.
-They do good to technological development.
-Yes. Now that they have the economic means to be able to do so, they invest in this, instead of buying an island in the Caribbean or the fifth yacht, and that ultimately will end up benefiting us all, for example, generating projects such as giving Internet to the entire planet Earth, as is the case with Elon Musk with the Starlink system. I see the developments of Tesla, here in the United States, how they are really revolutionizing automotive technology without using oil and a number of other developments that these people have made. It seems very positive for everyone.
IMPACT ON THE INDUSTRY
-How will it impact that the private sector is revolutionizing the transportation industry with flights and suborbital speeds?
-I do not limit it to the suborbital, but, in the case of Elon Musk who is truly revolutionizing orbital space flights, he will also go beyond low-Earth orbit in a few years. For decades NASA and the space agencies had a monopoly on space flight and, in particular, manned space flight. In recent years there have been flights led by Space X that have been changing and surpassing the space agencies. What this company does about how to recover rockets and reuse them a dozen times is something that no space agency in the world, including NASA, could do.
-What would that conservatism be like?
-Many times you don’t take risks when designing a spacecraft precisely because of its high cost and you play it safe. However, in the case of Space X and the other two competitors they have decided to take risks that states usually cannot take and, luckily, they have done well so far. I think it is something very auspicious, Space X has reduced in some cases more than 10 times the cost of space transport and that, without a doubt, is going to bring a lot of changes not only in the space issue, but in other areas.
-What did the development of astronautics on its soil mean for Argentina? How important were the Perón and Frondizi governments for the sector?
-Argentina has been a pioneer country in the development of space systems and I am not talking about the last 10 or 20 years. The country began this path more than eight decades ago and at the same time as the first superpower nations that began to investigate this issue. The case of President Frondizi was the one that through a 1960 decree created the CNIE, the National Commission for Space Research, which is the first space agency in Latin America. Frondizi had the pioneering idea, saw how important this technology was going to be and helped by Teófilo Tabanera, a famous Argentine space specialist and pioneer, created this space agency, just two years after the creation of NASA.
–He also had collaborations with NASA.
-Yes, and with the space agencies of France and the then German Federal Republic and even with Brazil. In fact, Brazilian specialists in the area came to Argentina to learn how space technology was made. So it was a pioneer country and, today, it continues to play an important role in the regional context, from Mexico on down, Argentina is the country that has the most development in the space field.
-It was your first government that began aerospace development in Argentina. Of course, part of this happened with the European immigration that arrived at that time and that was made up of a number of war criminals from the Nazi regime, including a significant number of engineers not only Germans, but also Italians and people who were not part of it. of the axis, as professionals of Polish origin who were on the side of the allies.
All of them came to the country because Europe at that time was practically destroyed and there was no place for this type of research, while in Argentina there was an interest in aeronautical development. We have great engineers like Reimar Horten and Kurt Tang, among others. All of them formed a very important aeronautical engineering school and, also, generated specialists in aerodynamics, power plants, propulsion, aircraft development and that, plus investment in workshops and research laboratories, were the ones that allowed to create some thus the seed of what later became the development of advanced rockets in Argentina.
THE MONKEY JUAN
-Argentina was the fourth country to be able to take a living being to space and return it alive to Earth, in what framework was this milestone taken?
-Argentina since the development of rockets began and, somehow, watching from afar the sending of the first animals into space, in the case of Laica by the Soviet Union and monkeys in the United States, they were also interested in sending beings alive. This happened with a Belisario mouse and several later mice that were sent in low-altitude flights and, later, in the launch of the Juan monkey, in 1969, which was the first Argentine primate in space that reached a considerable height where practically space is considered. The feat was achieved in a national rocket that were very complex developments to do in those years and, nevertheless, Argentina did it, becoming one of the few countries in the world that carried out this type of development.
-Then he couldn’t hold himself.
-The Argentine space program had ups and downs as we entered the 70s and 80s and, later, it entered a kind of sinusoid of triumphs and failures and, also, inattention. But somehow we always maintained ourselves as a country that had a very important spatial presence and that, regardless of the governments, had a nucleus of highly trained and highly outstanding professionals who made developments of great importance.
-And what happens now?
-Today, despite the problems and circumstances in Argentina, that is still more or less maintained, although I think it could be much more so and that we have not exploited national capacities. Our country would already have to have a satellite rocket to put its satellites independently and it has never achieved this, not due to lack of capacity, but due to the absence of political decisions to carry it forward.
-Does the New Space represent an opportunity for Argentina?
-It is undoubtedly a great opportunity and there are already a number of Argentine companies that have been working on this issue for a long time. An example is the case of Satellogic, which began with a grant from the Ministry of Science and Technology a few years ago and developed on an international scale. Today it has headquarters in several countries of the world and develops a family of satellites that photograph the earth in high resolution and offer those images for different studies and others. There are also LIA Aerospace and Tlon Spacehay, two companies working on the creation of satellite launch vehicles.
-What does it take to explode more?
-The current environment is not the most appropriate because spatial development requires the possibility of having more open borders to be able to export, import and trade freely with other countries. Also so that the problems of our developers are exclusively more technical and not bureaucratic and unnecessary because that is what ends up deciding that these entrepreneurs end up choosing their destinations in other countries as happened, in some way, with Satellogic. I believe that an environment open to innovation, exchange with the world, exports and the generation of genuine foreign exchange is something that is lacking precisely so that this new space allows the country to expand employment and development opportunities.