Scientific research benefits from more rocket launches, companies

Josh Colwell has experienced rocket launches differently than most others.

Sure, he said, he “enjoys the spectacle” that comes with a powerful rocket taking off from a Space Coast launch pad. But in 2014, when he sent an experiment into space aboard a SpaceX rocket, Colwell couldn’t help but be nervous because he knew that any movement or rattle could destroy the project he had worked years to set up.

“You mentally go through all of the various things that can go wrong,” said Colwell, a University of Central Florida professor whose experiment aims to increase understanding of the solar system’s origin by studying slow-speed collisions between dust particles in zero gravity. “You imagine what the experiment will do up until the moment you actually have it in space. That can be a somewhat anxious feeling.”

In the end, everything went fine.

Opportunities to launch experiments such as Colwell’s into space have grown as companies like Blue Origin have started to send rockets into low-earth orbit. SpaceX and Orbital ATK have sent resupply missions to the International Space Station this year from Florida.

Overall, 19 rockets have taken off from Florida in 2017, including 13 carrying research or satellites for private industry or NASA.

“From my sense, it’s been more of a game-changer in terms of life sciences and that kind of thing,” said Ray Lugo, director of the University of Central Florida’s Florida Space Institute.

The growth in launches can be a boost for business, too.

Businesses from countries around the world have launched satellites from Florida this year.

For the Space Coast to reach its goal of becoming the leading space-based economy in the U.S., it must emphasize research just as much as business, said Dale Ketcham, Space Florida’s chief of strategic alliances.

“If we just focus on the business end and don’t pay attention to the long-term seed corn of research, we’ll never grow into what we want to be,” he said. “The space economies that are healthy and mature understand the value of major investment in research.”

The importance of more missions has gone beyond the business side of space. The launches have meant added opportunities for educators to expose students to science-based research.

Blue Origin frequently sends rockets into low-earth orbit, often carrying experiments developed and built by students in high school or younger, said Carie Lemack, co-founder and CEO of DreamUp.

“It’s an opportunity to build the next generation of workforce of innovators and explorers,” she said. “They are so thrilled to think that something they build can go to the space station.”

The possibilities for space-based scientific research received a boost when Blue Origin jumped into rocket launches, Colwell said.

Add Virgin Galactic, which is also building a low-earth orbit vehicle, and Colwell said it’s a good time for science research, even outside of NASA payloads destined for the International Space Station.

“We are entering a period of very rapid growth in this,” he said. “We will be able to send a lot more new and interesting space experiments that have fundamental research in them.”

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