For the first time since the Space Shuttle was decommissioned in 2011, American astronauts were launched aboard an American spacecraft from American soil. On Saturday May 30th, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken took off from Cape Canaveral in a SpaceX vehicle, and successfully docked with the ISS on Sunday morning. The event marked the first time that a private company has been contracted (and, crucially, trusted) by NASA to perform such a delicate and daring feat. The trials and tribulations of somewhat-eccentric billionaire Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX have intermittently captured public attention over the past few years, but this may prove to be a pivotal moment in humankind’s reaching for the stars. The private sector has soared to new heights and proven itself worthy. Could this be the spark that reignites the Space dream once and for all?
Just over 50 years ago, on July 21st 1969, Neil Armstrong laid mankind’s first footprints on another planet. In that instant, the Space Race between the two Cold War superpowers reached its climax. During the 1960’s, hearts and minds were captivated by the stars the world over. Humanity had survived the barbarity of WWII, the global economy was rebounding and the future looked bright. A triumphant United States emerged fearless and sought out a new struggle for greatness. In 1962, President Kennedy laid out his nation’s call to adventure in no uncertain terms: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. Outer Space (conventionally starting beyond the Kàrmàn line, that is, at altitudes greater than 100km) was officially identified as the new frontier and beckoned to be conquered. Under the Apollo program, NASA’s budget peaked at $44 billion and swelled to 34,000 employees. The driving ambition was as much about historic scientific achievement as it was about beating the Russians. Thus far, the USSR had beaten the USA to almost every punch imaginable: First object in orbit (Sputnik 1 – which literally translates to “satellite”- in 1957), first living being in Space (Laika, a dog, a month later), the first man in Space (Yuri Gagarin in 1961), the first woman in Space (Valentina Tereshkova in 1963), and the first spacewalk (Alexei Leonov in 1965). And then, in a PR move arguably as ingenious as the endeavour itself, the USA reversed its fortunes, wiped the scoreboard clean and claimed the Moon. Man had reached the stars, and this man was American. From that highpoint on, support from the public and the government waned. The dream had come true, but the real world now required attention. The Vietnam War, OPEC oil crises, and economic stagnation sponged up funds away from NASA during the 1970’s: their allocated budget averaged around $15 billion. By the beginning of the 1990’s, despite the beginnings of the ISS program getting underway, NASA’s budget deflated to 1% of the annual federal budget. By 2000, this had fallen to 0.75%, and since 2010 it has levelled off around 0.50%. Nevertheless, Space remained an object of our fantasies, with cultural staples such as Star Wars and Star Trek. We may have missed the prophecies of 2001: A Space Odyssey by a long shot, but some of Kubrick’s more subtle predictions are just now materializing. In the 1968 film, Pan-Am was hinted as operating regular space flights, Hilton owned the orbital waystation and AT&T ran video communications back to Earth. Far from succumbing to the to the allure of gratuitous product placement, the acclaimed director saw the private sector coming.
As had happened throughout modern history, once nation states with the power to sink and absorb the immense expense of making the initial foray into an unchartered field had paved the way, private profit-seeking enterprises joined the fray. Space was first used for commercial purposes in 1962 with the launch of the Telstar 1: the first satellite able to transmit trans-Atlantic live television signals (funded by none other than AT&T). Of the roughly 2,000 currently in orbit around planet Earth, just under half are reported as being used for commercial purposes. Between 2008 and 2018, the value of the satellite industry almost doubled reaching almost $280 billion. But whereas satellites have been deployed by the private sector for decades, manned launch capabilities have eluded them. Essentially, the high degree of risk and required technical prowess (we are talking about rocket science after all) has proven to be an impenetrable barrier to entry for all firms up until this point. That is, until SpaceX (shorthand for Space Exploration Technologies) came along. Established just over 18 years ago by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, the company had a clear vision in mind: make Space travel more cost-effective. In this goal, the private company has made impressive headway: during the Space Shuttle program, it cost around $55,000 to launch one kilogram into Space, by 2018, SpaceX had that down to $2,720. The secret to their success is simple enough in theory: reusable boosters. Instead of letting billions of dollars of hardware break up into the atmosphere or disappear into the ocean, have the boosters land themselves smartly back to base, ready for another mission after some light refurbishment (if you haven’t seen the two landing simultaneously in 2018, do so immediately: nothing encapsulates the future quite like it). Thus SpaceX is able to undercut its international competitors for the launching of commercial satellites, and thus they are receiving an ever-growing share of the demand. As of this weekend, SpaceX became the first private company to successfully launch and deliver astronauts to the ISS. Not only does this mark the return of manned spaceflight to US soil, but also the start of a new business model for the country’s space agency. Instead of using their own craft with taxpayer dollars, they merely purchase the ride. In such a market-driven approach, other private companies also have a mandate to do so. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program awarded SpaceX a $2.6 billion contract to develop a crewed vehicle and fly 6 operational launches, whilst Boeing received $4.2 billion (a funding disparity that did not pass uncontested). Just in case one Space–crazed billionaire wasn’t enough, the world’s richest man, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos also has his own space company, Blue Origin (not to mention Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic). One could be forgiven for thinking that the former show of force between global superpowers is now a showdown between audacious billionaires. However, one empire in particular is quietly striking back…
The reliance on Russia’s launch capability has been a thorn in America’s side for years (and a diplomatically excruciating one since the former’s annexation of Crimea in 2014). At long last, that predicament appears resolved, and just in time. Whereas the USA ultimately defeated Russia in the 20th century, in the 21st century their primary adversary for global supremacy is China. The Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA), although much criticised for its lackadaisical approach to safety, is advancing at a terrific pace. In 2003, the agency’s Shenzhou 5 mission captained by Yang Liwei propelled China into becoming only the third country to independently send humans into Space. In January 2019, the CNSA secured a Space first by landing its lunar rover on the far side of the moon and successfully transmitting signals back to Earth. Establishing a base on the Moon and exploring possible industrial development has long been a goal, and in 2020 plans were announced to launch a Chinese Space station. Amidst fears of intellectual property theft, since 2011 NASA has been banned from using funds to host Chinese visitors. More recently, under the Trump administration, as relations with Putin’s Russia have warmed, tensions with Xi Jinping’s China have only risen. Protecting American interests from Eastern aggression has become the priority, be that on land, at sea or, even, in Space. The Outer Space Treaty is a UN initiative (ratified by 109 countries, among whom the US, Russia, and China) that sets out the rules of the game in Space, stipulating that it remain a peaceful, non-militarized zone of international cooperation. However, as the global economy becomes ever more entwined with the internet and our technological capabilities ever greater, our orbital resources are more precious and more vulnerable than ever. On December 20th 2019, Donald Trump officially established the United States Space Force, the newest branch of the U.S. Armed Forces (the 6th if anyone is counting), whose mission statement includes “space superiority” and “offensive and defensive space control”. The freshly released Netflix show of the same name is closer to reality than you’d think.
Whilst it is true that geopolitical hostilities belie hopes of a free-trading economic market operating beyond our blue planet in the near future, the overall outlook is positive and, more importantly, awe-inspiring. Ground-breaking accomplishments such as SpaceX’s flawless delivery of Doug Hurley and Ben Behnken to the ISS have the power to inspire and motivate the next generation of scientists, engineers and astronauts. Human achievement isn’t compartmentalized: the benefits will percolate far beyond rocketry. For the first time since Apollo, Space might just be cool once again.