Former astronaut Robert Curbeam discusses emerging space market, moon travel

Wednesday, October 7, 2020 - 10:14pm

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Courtesy of Jared Dougall

Former NASA astronaut Robert Curbeam spoke to University of Michigan alumni and students over Zoom on Wednesday about his time in the space program, the emerging space market and possible business solutions to decrease costs associated with space travel. 

Andrei Mitran, Business alum and senior capture manager for human space exploration at Northrop Grumman, introduced Curbeam and asked the audience to contribute their ideas about space travel throughout the event.

“We are looking for diversity of thought,” Mitran said. “We believe in space as a tool for the progress of humanity.” 

Curbeam spoke about NASA’s plan to put astronauts on the moon in 2024 for the first time since 1972. The objective of the project, Curbeam said, is to “re-learn” how to get to the moon and establish a foothold colony, a functioning economy and a gateway space station orbiting the moon. 

President Donald Trump requested a 12% increase to NASA’s budget in February to fund the program, known as Artemis, a move that sparked backlash for cutting funding for some science programs like NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement and giving more money to Artemis. 

Curbeam said NASA plans to apply the knowledge and technologies acquired by this project to eventually get to other planets like Mars.

“Something we did 50 years ago, we need to learn how to do again, so we can go to other planets, give us the technology and the know-how to go back to the moon and on to Mars,” Curbeam said. “Speaking of Mars, that’s where we really want to go, that’s the ultimate goal.” 

After a year of serving as a test pilot in the Navy in the 1990s, Curbeam applied to become an astronaut. He was accepted to the program on his first application, a rare feat for an emerging astronaut. His first flight was in 1997 aboard the space shuttle Discovery. 

Curbeam went back to space twice, both times to the International Space Station, in 2001 aboard Atlantis and in 2006 again aboard Discovery. In 2006, Curbeam unexpectedly aided in the retraction of a solar panel. During this project, he completed four spacewalks, setting a record for the highest number in a single mission. Curbeam retired in 2007 after 23 years of service in the Navy. 

In 2018, he became vice president of business development for Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and defense company that was famously involved with the space program in the 1960s. 

At the event Wednesday, Curbeam discussed the emerging private space market propelled by Silicon Valley businessmen Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who he said are having a space race of their own to get to Mars.

Mars is 200 times farther away from Earth than the moon and it takes seven months to travel there. Mars’s gravitational pull is also stronger than the moon’s, Curbeam said, and there is no atmosphere to slow a craft down, making reentry difficult. 

“As far as going to Mars directly, that would be awesome,” Curbeam said. “However, being a flight test guy, I like doing baby steps. That’s what we always do in flight tests. When you have a brand new design you, generally speaking, don’t take off, throw up the landing gear, put up the flaps, go to forty thousand feet and fly supersonic. That’s generally saved for further downline. NASA is taking that same build up approach to the moon.”

Curbeam said the economy of space travel emphasizes profitability, with reusability being one way to cut costs. Since the space program began in the 1960s, the rockets have only been good for one trip. The Space Shuttle Program attempted to address this problem, but only the shuttle itself was reusable, not the rocket boosters. 

Chris Yoo, a Business alum and panelist during the event, suggested that governments collaborate on innovative solutions to decrease the costs of space travel. 

“Maybe the moon could be split up into parcels, small bits of land, and then sold to private citizens and that money could be used for space development,” Yoo said. “Obviously governments would have to come together to agree on the terms and conditions, but it’s a way to raise money for space development.” 

Contributor Jared Dougall can be reached at jdougall@umich.edu.

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Correction: The Ross School of Business did not sponsor this event.