Routinizing Spaceflight, And The Cislunar Void

In case you’ve missed it, there’s been some interesting recent news on the space front, in several different areas. It indicates that real progress has been made in “routinizing” spaceflight–that is, getting to the point where spaceflights have become a normal, expected occurrence, rather than a once-ever-six-months national TV phenomenon–as we get ready to tackle the next step in the development of our extraterrestrial neighborhood.

For now, the routinizing news is all about SpaceX. Today, that company is set to complete its 32nd launch of 2022, which will break the record the company set in 2021, even though the year is barely more than half over. With its fleet of reusable and reliable Falcon 9 rockets and tested launch systems, SpaceX has carried crew members and cargo to the international space station, seeded a bunch of Starlink satellites into Earth orbit, performed missions for the Department of Defense, and made forays into space so commonplace that they don’t get much attention, except from the space nerds (like me) among us.

Here are some interesting statistics: in 2022, SpaceX has launched a vehicle, on average, every 6.4 days and has taken 300,000 kg of material and people into low Earth orbit, which means that SpaceX has done more than all other countries and companies in the world, combined. SpaceX plans to make about 50 launches this year and is basically leading the way to routinized spaceflight, all by itself. That means spaceflight will become even more routine–and, by definition, cheaper–as SpaceX’s competitors ramp up their launches and activities in the coming months, as they plan to do.

This is good news, and an important platform on which to build as space development moves to the logical next step, when we venture beyond low-Earth orbit into cislunar space, which is the area beyond geosynchronous orbit out to the surface of the Moon. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently issued a request for information about developing U.S. strategy for development of cislunar space, and some responses have urged that commercial entities should lead the way. That is, the governmental role shouldn’t be to do everything, as it did in the ’60s space program, but instead should be to clear the way for commercial companies like SpaceX to apply their creativity, engineering prowess, technological savvy, and venture capital to lead the development effort. With many companies focusing on cislunar space, and the government helping to coordinate their efforts, development and further routinizing of spaceflight is much more likely to happen quickly. That will set the stage for an early return to the lunar surface and the Moon bases that were forecast in 2001.

Those of us who are creatures of habit know the value of the routine. That is true for spaceflight as well, and will continue to be true when cislunar space is the focus. What SpaceX has done is impressive, but it also allows us to glimpse the possibilities.

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