For many, SpaceX’s recent launch was an introduction to a new and exciting era of the commercialisation of space, but it was just one element of a multi-billion dollar industry that is only set to grow. For legislators and policy-makers, it should be a call to action.
The Demo-2 mission was the first time a privately owned and operated rocket had carried astronauts to orbit, it was NASA’s first crewed mission to launch from US soil since the space shuttle program shut down nearly a decade ago, and was NASA’s most watched online event ever.
Impressive though these records are, they do not address the key value drivers behind Demo-2 – the cost savings that bring space closer to business.
The Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule used in the mission were developed by SpaceX as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. NASA estimates that between them, SpaceX and Boeing (whose Starliner concept is also part of the program) have saved NASA between 20 and 30 billion dollars, as compared to the now scrubbed Constellation Program that was originally intended to replace the shuttle.
The Falcon 9 rocket, as millions of people saw last weekend, is also re-usable, meaning unlike the Saturn V rocket that took Armstrong et al. to the moon in the 60s, there is no need to build a new one for each launch. Over the life of each vehicle, this represents significant savings of both time and costs (potentially along the lines of several orders of magnitude).
As the underlying economics of escaping the earth’s gravity adjust so that reaching and using orbital and outer space resources becomes more viable, ideas once thought of as pipedreams are taking a giant leap towards reality.
Alongside its crew and cargo missions (the first Cargo Dragon docked with the ISS in late 2012), SpaceX is developing Starlink, a constellation of low-orbit satellites that will beam low latency broadband internet to the earth’s surface. Amazon’s Project Kuiper has the same aim, and could be launched aboard New Glenn, a re-usable rocket being developed by Jeff Bezos’ other space venture, Blue Origin.
Mr. Bezos is not the only big-tech titan looking to the stars. Alphabet’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt are founding investors of Planetary Resources, a company that aims to mine precious metals, minerals and the ingredients for rocket fuel from asteroids. Sir Richard Branson, whose own space ventures, Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic, aim to provide satellite launch and space tourism services respectively, is also an investor. They will face competition from Deep Space Industries, who currently develop satellites but also intend to prospect outer space resources.
One chilling factor for this burgeoning industry though is legislation. As the space industry pivots towards a privatised model, the cold-war era treaties that govern space exploration are looking decidedly past their best. Undoubtedly successful, if only for keeping nuclear weapons out of space, texts written when governments were the only players in the industry are ill-suited to allowing the new market in space to flourish. A new law in Luxembourg and an executive order in the United States hint at some political appetite to redress these deficiencies, but unilateral moves to guarantee the rights of commercial actors can only go so far. To capitalise on the opportunities of a new era in space, new treaties will be required.
This represents a transition in how we do spaceflight from the United States of America. NASA is not going to purchase, own and operate rockets and capsules the way we used to; we’re going to partner with commercial industry.