The modern space race
Space races are exciting, there’s no denying it. However, unlike the iconic space race of old between Cold War rivals, a slew of billionaires are vying to come out on top of this new competition. With 2019 marking 50 years since the Apollo moon landing, nothing seems to have captured public attention more than this historic event. Having said that, the space sector is currently undergoing a renaissance.
In this era, coined “New Space”1, NASA has obtained a reduced role. It’s not countries that will be sector leaders but business leaders instead. And in the near future, it may well be that anyone with a big enough chequebook can become a space tourist2. In the golden age of spaceflight, widely considered to be the Apollo era, it would be difficult to imagine that NASA’s supremacy would be diminished. However, with strict budget cuts and private companies like SpaceX showing that they can launch rockets as well, the tides are changing3.
You might think that a space trip is the top answer to a billionaire’s mid-life crisis. Nevertheless, these projects have been in the pipeline for many years and when they have that much spare cash to burn, who could blame them4?
Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos are together pushing boundaries with, to all appearances, an unlimited budget. But what goal are these billionaires trying to attain? Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, was the first to emerge onto the private scene with his company Blue Origin in 2000. The company believes that “in order to preserve Earth, our home, for our grandchildren’s grandchildren, we must go to space to tap its unlimited resources and energy”5.
Blue Origin is well known for their work developing the New Shepard rocket, named after Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard. New Shepard is a suborbital rocket that travels high enough to reach the edge of outer space without having the energy to achieve orbit. This incorporates a crew capsule with the aim of carrying future paying customers for suborbital space tourism. December 11th of 2019 marked New Shepard’s sixth space flight. It has carried numerous experiments over its multiple missions6.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX came to light just two years after Blue Origin. His company aims to “revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets”. In 2010, they became the first private company able to return a spacecraft from a low Earth orbit. Since then they have gained global recognition for their achievements. They were the creators of the Dragon spacecraft which delivered cargo to and from the International Space Station successfully. Commercially, this spacecraft was the first of its kind. In recent years, they began launching their Falcon Heavy, “the world’s most powerful operational rocket”7.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is attempting to be the first to offer commercial human spaceflight. Their mission involves “using space for good” by trying to open up space to everyone8. However, current attempts have not been without agony. Five years ago VSS Enterprise scattered pieces of itself over the Mojave Desert during a test flight. The result was the death of the co-pilot, a father of two9. This is a sobering reality of spaceflight but something astronauts and space sector employees understand as a risk of the job.
Years on, they have regrouped. As the company prepares for commercial flights, it has been able to raise $450 million by going public on the New York Stock Exchange. They haven’t given a date for their first planned commercial flight, but it’s presumed that it will be sometime in 2020. Their crews have, on previous test flights, entered space twice. In anticipation of commercial flight, Virgin Galactic have transferred development and production staff to Spaceport America from their site in the Mojave desert10.
Competition remains the essence of every race. But where does this race leave the big players like NASA and ESA? The US Senate not long ago confirmed General Jay Raymond to lead the brand spanking new US Space Command. US Space Command is part of 11 commands in the Department of Defense and focuses on defending the interests of the US in space. General Raymond recently met Branson, Bezos and Musk11 and seems excited about the possibilities of how space command can benefit from strides made by the private sector. Given that these two entities have different priorities it may be that they will work well hand in hand.
It’s no surprise, given news over the past few years that NASA’s next long term goal is to send humans to Mars. But don’t begin the countdown just yet. There are still many technological barriers that need to be broken down first. Many believe that it would be prudent to first send humans back to the moon with NASA aiming to be the first to do so. Where Mars could be nearly a year-long trip, the Moon is just a few days away12.
NASA has a budget of $22.75 billion for 2020. This is an increase on previous years to account for the Artemis program, with plans to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 202413. However, despite this increase in budget, it would be prudent to harness the benefits that these private companies can offer. In this case, competition may give way to collaboration.
The agency’s plans for reaching the moon involve ‘commercial and international partners’. Including private space companies in this current moon bid offers up a way of sharing costs. It looks like NASA and these companies will work together on future moon missions. This will, in turn, provide an excellent opportunity to test equipment and technology that will eventually take humans to Mars.
It seems that the way forward for the space sector as a whole is for the federal agencies like NASA and ESA to work in collaboration with the likes of Musk, Bezos and Branson. The attention of governments and their budgets are unfortunately only a finite resource. By working together, there is hope that a sustainable lunar economy can be created and maintained. It has been argued by some that billionaires and private companies have no place in space exploration due to its importance. However, it cannot be disputed that these three tycoons are increasing the rate at which we progress.
This article was specialist edited by Katrina Wesencraft and copy-edited by Dzachary Zainudden.