The risks and the huge money involved left the space industry to governments. From landing on the moon to exploring the deep space, including the outer planets, governments have traditionally funded space projects.
It was seen as an input to the national pride.
In its early days, competition drove space exploration as the US and its rival, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), now Russia and her neighbouring republics competed on who would go farthest into space.
Military use was another motivator. The technology used to launch rockets is the same one used to launch ballistic missiles.
With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the political competition was replaced by cooperation, best espoused by the International Space Station (ISS) and use of Russian rockets to ferry American astronauts and supplies to ISS.
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That did not stop countries from seeking space honours with Europe (a group of 22 member countries), China, Japan and India joining the club. Their focus has mostly been on unmanned space travel using robots and related technology.
But the real pride in space exploration comes when human beings are involved. You can’t claim to be a tourist by sending drones around or watching documentaries.
That is why SpaceX launch was so celebrated. There were two men in the capsule oddly named Dragon, a very Chinese term.
The invigoration of the space industry, not just exploration came from another source, the private sector and its search for money or better profits. Did you notice how infrared thermometers suddenly got into the market after Covid-19?
Getting the private sector into the space industry was long overdue. If we can travel on water, land or air privately, why not in space which is more open and less congested?
The hurdle was the governments. Would they allow what was the domain of their military get into private hands, be under the invisible hand of the market?
It must have been reasoned out that the competition unleashed by letting the private sector compete for government space contracts would lead to better, cheaper and more efficient technology.
And more innovations. NASA will probably one day become a regulator to ensure rules are kept in the space industry that is now open, more like other earthly industries.
History shows that industries under free markets boom. Think of airlines, telecommunications, banking, medicine, higher education, private security and in Kenya, matatus.
The involvement of the private sector in the space industry will unleash its potential. Beyond the military, other earthly industries will benefit from the space industry.
The earthlians will learn to grow new crops as the weather changes, get faster internet and very soon, start mining the moon and asteroids.
Tourism will boom too. Soon, travelling to low orbit will become the status symbol before we advance technology to visit Mars and other planets. I hope in my lifetime we shall seed the dead planets with human life.
Would love to have relatives in other planets and show off, visiting them during the Christmas holidays. Imagine excusing yourself from a board meeting to pick a phone call from planet X?
The successful launch of the SpaceX capsule to dock with ISS shows the potential of the space industry. The good thing about space is that it’s unlimited, unlike the Earth.
With space, we could even retire the word scarcity. The best we have done in exploiting space in Kenya is building high rise buildings. We can do more than that. Soon we should be hooping into spaceships like matatus.
We must stop being spectators as the space industry opens up with its limitless opportunities. The USA has even formed a space command in her military to safeguard her strategic interests.
In Kenya, we have The National Space Secretariat, under the Ministry of Defence. Its website says: “The main role of the Secretariat is to promote and enhance social and economic development through the utilisation of space technology.”
More should be heard from this secretariat. It’s time to take Kenya to the space age. We can’t afford to lose the benefits of space exploration and its spillovers.
Did we encourage Kenyan children to watch the launch and docking of the Dragon? They shouldn’t miss the inspirational value of such moments in their education particularly sciences.
After all, our children will be the key beneficiaries and heirs to the space industry. Remember Elon Musk was born in Africa. Finally, by coincidence or chance, as SpaceX was launching the rocket, racial riots were rocking America.
They rocked the same country as the race to the moon was on in the 1960s. Please watch the sky tonight and marvel at its vastness and the opportunities therein.
-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi