The U.N. is planning to launch its first space mission into orbit, packed with scientific experiments from countries that can't afford their own space programs.
It's teaming up with the Sierra Nevada Corporation, which makes the Dream Chaser, a reusable spacecraft that, when it returns from orbit, can land at an ordinary airport. They formally announced the plans this week at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.
The idea is to "reach out to communities and to countries and to young people around the world who may never have had the opportunity to do something in space," as Mark Sirangelo, the head of SNC's space division, tells NPR. "Instead of countries having to purchase a single mission, they could be a part of a collaboration with many countries on board."
The plan is to launch the Dream Chaser in 2021 for a 14-day flight in low Earth orbit. Sirangelo says the spacecraft is "about the size of a regional jet," and the company envisions outfitting it with 20 to 25 laboratory stations for countries to do experiments in microgravity. And while it's aimed at developing countries, any U.N. member state can apply to participate.
Before liftoff, the U.N's Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) is also planning to provide technical support to countries that haven't had experience conducting microgravity experiments.
"It's not only the experiment itself, it's the whole preparation, the training, the courses that are necessary to be developed with the students," Luc St-Pierre, the chief of UNOOSA's Space Applications Section, explains to NPR. He says he thinks it's this training and preparation process that may provide the most lasting positive impact on the countries involved, adding "hopefully there's a bit of chain reaction in the benefits."
Experiments on board could include testing the growth of cereal crops in microgravity, St-Pierre says, or carrying out studies related to microbiology, or medicine, or energy.
The UNOOSA was founded in 1958 to promote "the peaceful uses of outer space," but it has never launched a mission itself – until now.
"We do pretty extraordinary things in the space industry, and it takes a lot to make people stop and look up, but this has never been done before," Sirangelo says. And before this, "the United Nations, while known to everybody, has never really made the step forward to seek this kind of relationship."
Looking into the future, the plan to have the Dream Chaser land at an airport opens the possibility of bringing "the vehicle home around the world and [having] people see what that's like," Sirangelo adds.
Funding remains a major question. Sirangelo says that the spacecraft itself will be built and funded under other programs, reducing the cost. He says the collaborators will look for funding from sponsors. Additionally, each country providing an experiment will pay a fee, though he says the program aims to "get that to a manageable number, so everybody has a chance to participate."
Of course, space flight is extremely expensive – for example, NASA says the Space Shuttle Endeavour cost about $1.7 billion to build, plus about $450 million per mission.
Sirangelo says he sees efforts such as this as a unifying force:
"One of the really interesting things about space is that despite all the turmoil that we see on Earth, and the geopolitical issues that go between all our countries, space is a place where we have collaborated and cooperated on the International Space Station. We think this might be an extension of that. The Space Station is a marvelous laboratory, limited to a certain group of countries who participated in building it. This takes that concept and maybe takes it a little bit further, and opens the door to a lot of other countries to have a chance to do something they've never done before."
In addition to this space mission, UNOOSA announced earlier this year that U.N. member states will be able to apply to do experiments aboard China's planned space station.