Our collective dreams of space are not only inspired by peering up at the heavens as they have been for thousands of years, but also by popular culture. Modern sci-fi isn’t just about fighting off an alien menace or exploring different galaxies. For example, Moon (2009), a film rated highly by scientists, portrays a (realistic) lunar mining operation in the near future while delving into the emotional implications of exploring our final frontier.
Perhaps the best example of this new genre is The Martian (2015) starring Matt Damon. The film, based on a novel of the same title by novelist Andy Weir, tells the tale of a lone astronaut stranded on Mars and his battle to survive until help arrives. Unlike the average sci-fi flick, the crew relied on NASA to keep the story’s technical aspects accurate. Ed Finn, director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, praised the movie, saying, “What this story does really well is imagine a near-future scenario that doesn’t push too far off where we are today technically.” Professor Brian Cox likewise heaped more plaudits on the realistic vision of humankind’s future on Mars, calling it, “the best advert for a career in engineering I’ve seen.”
Sierra Space believes this new brand of realistic science fiction can catalyze renewed interest in space as we enter the Orbital Age. Although some action fans may be disappointed by The Martian’s lack of phasers and lasers, Cox makes an excellent point on the power of pop culture by calling the movie an ad for a career in engineering. Such realistic science fiction can only help to ignite an interest in space and engineering amongst younger generations. Moreover, the message of such films is clear: Humanity’s future in space is within our grasp if we put our collective minds to it.
But before we contemplate any 140-million-mile journey to Mars, our focus should be much closer to home: low-Earth orbit. LEO is the area of space ranging about 100 miles above Earth’s surface up to 1,200 miles away. This orbital space, bordered on one side by layers of the atmosphere that can cause orbital decay, and by the Van Allen radiation belts on the other, has been home to most of humanity’s off-world endeavors. For example, the International Space Station (ISS) and America’s space shuttle missions have been in LEO at 200 to 240 miles above Earth. LEO will also be the initial target for Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser® spaceplane and LIFE™ Habitat.
Still, some may ask, why stay close to home? The answer: LEO offers maximum benefits with the least possible risk. Creating conditions for all people to live and work in low-Earth orbit—instead of a select group of handpicked government specialists—is key to humanity embracing the Orbital Age. LEO is also the perfect target for the Dream Chaser and Orbital Reef, featuring the LIFE Habitat because it will help open the door to space for more people.
Here, tomorrow’s professionals will soon thrive, as opposed to solely being a destination for intrepid explorers and trailblazers. When LEO is considered a “normal” assignment―one with a stunning view out the windows―humanity will be well on its way to further destinations. Most importantly, LEO promises incredible advances for humanity, enabled by LEO’s unique properties.
Already, LEO’s microgravity has led to many advances in medicine. Just imagine how future technologies will blossom when true medical experts can conduct medical research in space in space instead of guiding things from the ground? Another benefit is the Dream Chaser’s ability to return delicate (medical) materials and experiments with a gentle 1.5G landing instead of a jarring descent.
Rapid breakthroughs will also occur in other fields where microgravity can aid human invention, such as materials science and environmental studies. These will occur in the vacuum of space, but they won’t happen in a vacuum of concerns about maintaining safety and an efficient working environment, which is where LEO really shines.
Undoubtedly, LEO presents humanity with the benefits of space, coupled with the best safety profile and work-life balance. For example, bandwidth between Earth and a station in LEO is quite strong and communications latency remains low. That’s crucial not only for work tasks, like sharing scientific data, but also for a video call back home. Also, traveling in orbit within the Van Allen radiation belts protects spaceworkers from high levels of toxic energy associated with deep space travel. Finally, as launches to LEO become commonplace, unscheduled travel will be as simple as catching the next Dream Chaser―much like you might hop on the next flight at the airport today.
Ultimately, Sierra Space’s mission is to open up LEO for all, enabling the private sector to embrace living and working in space for humankind’s betterment. Empowering people to innovate in space is essential to the Orbital Age, and we are at the dawn of it today. Consider this: Less than 300 people have orbited Earth aboard the ISS throughout its time in service. Sierra Space believes it won’t be long until more than 300 private sector professionals will live and work in LEO at the same time.
To learn about how you can join Sierra Space and our mission to improve Earth by making space available to all, research a space career today.