How Has Innovation Created a Private Space Race?
Overview: Sending people and objects into space was once so expensive, only a handful of governments could do it. The global push to develop a private space industry was both driven by innovation and drives innovation in both the private and public sectors in turn.
The Promise of Space
Between 1960 and 1973, when NASA achieved its mission to put an American on the Moon, the agency spent $280 billion in 2020 dollars, over $9 billion for every launch in that time period. Today, private operators like SpaceX can get something in orbit for as little as $28 million.
While most of us don’t have $28 million lying around, that’s still a steep drop over 60 years. And it happened in large part due to a drive for innovation and a desire to take the space program to the public.
The Roots Of A Private Space Sector
The space race has its roots in two factors: The geopolitics of the Cold War era, where space flight was part and parcel of military research, and the impact of applied research in the wake of World War II.
Applied research is about taking the abstract theories and ideas of scientific work and turning them into practical products and devices. The logistical challenges of World War II drove an unprecedented burst of innovation that filtered down into consumer products after the war, and in turn, illustrated that applied research could be used for peaceful means.
At the same time, governments were trying to learn how to wage a “cold” war, a fight more about diplomacy and ideology than physical combat. Exploring space offered a two-fold opportunity; it had promise for both military and civilian technological advancement and an invaluable demonstration of prowess on the world stage.
Throughout the 1980s, though, space agencies began to see their briefs shift. The Cold War ended, and civilian technology companies began innovating and building off of government designs to deliver their own products. Private satellite networks began to come into more common use, reducing the need for government infrastructure in communications and data-gathering.
Space agencies began to be asked by their governments to perform more “basic research,” gathering data, refining theories, and reporting on discoveries. In short, they were less focused on getting people into space and more focused on the science those people would do when they got there. Yet getting people into space was still surprisingly expensive.
Since the 1960s, space agencies around the world had worked on ways to develop reusable spacecraft. The original launches rendered almost every component unusable at some point in the process, from the boosters to the capsule, making each mission incredibly expensive.
Over time, though, the efforts began to bear fruit, the most visible being NASA’s Shuttle Program, which dropped the cost of space missions down to $540 million a launch, on average.
There was also a feedback loop of innovation with rocket parts such as onboard guidance systems. For example, computer chips that were heavy, expensive, and custom-built in the 1960s are now on shelves in stores across the world, driving down the cost of rocketry.
By the early 2000s, it had been shown to be possible to build a rocket cheaply, relatively speaking. While there were some pieces that had to be custom engineered, overall this drove down the cost of an uncrewed flight.
The main issue from a space agency perspective was that there was more demand for launches than they could, or should, meet. Even if private entities were able to cover the cost of a launch, it wasn’t always allowed within the agency’s parameters, and there were only so many launches a year. It was clear that the lack of a private space launch market was hampering innovation.
Similarly, government agencies can only work with approved vendors on contracts issued by their governments. There’s an excellent reason for this: These are ultimately taxpayer dollars being spent. But it also creates a more conservative approach to limit waste. A private market could help by tapping new sources of funding and engaging in experiments government agencies couldn’t justify attempting, and would also drive down the cost of launches, thus conserving government funds for more research.
Legislation such as the United States adopting the U.S. National Space Policy helped set the stage for the private space market. The question then became who’d meet the challenge.
A Private Space Race
Once the stage was set, the private space race took off, and over the last five years has seen some notable milestones:
- In November 2015, Blue Origin launched the first reusable suborbital rocket successfully.
- In December 2015, SpaceX landed its first reusable first stage of an orbital rocket.
- In March 2017, SpaceX successfully “recycled” its first rocket.
- And in April 2019, SpaceX recovered a reusable rocket nose for the first time.
As of 2021, the space landscape is substantially different. While so far only the Falcon 9 rocket and Falcon Heavy rocket from SpaceX have regularly reused parts, with the Falcon 9 seeing 87 recoveries and 69 relaunches, space agencies around the world are developing their own reusable first stages, with Blue Origin’s New Glenn system also in the works.
Most fascinating, from an innovation perspective, is how this has opened the door to more nations to launch their own missions. Falcon 9 launches have sent up Bangladeshi communications satellites, Israeli unmanned moon landers, Canadian earth science research satellites, and much more.
In a broader sense, several nations around the world have created or revitalized their own government space programs since 2015, including Australia, Luxembourg, Portugal, the Phillippines, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. Ambitious programs from smaller nations have sent landers to the Moon, put satellites over Mars, and opened the door to more data collection and diplomatic opportunities to share data and refine designs.
Challenges still remain. Private manned spaceflight, for example, has been proven possible yet still remains expensive. Yet as private space flight has proven, the feedback of innovation between public and private sectors can make anything possible.
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