Private companies are launching a new space race – here’s what to expect

 In Science
Credit: Pixabay, CC BY-SA

The space race between the USA and Russia started with a beep from the Sputnik satellite exactly 60 years ago (October 4, 1957) and ended with a handshake in space just 18 years later. The handshake was the start of many decades of international collaboration in space. But over the past decade there has been a huge change.


The space environment is no longer the sole preserve of government agencies. Private companies have entered the exploration domain and are propelling the sector forward more vigorously and swiftly than would be the case if left to governments alone.

It could be argued that a new space race has begun, in which private companies are competing against each other and against government organisations. But this time it is driven by a competition for customers rather than the urge to show dominance by being first to achieve a certain goal. So who are the main players and how will they change the science, technology and politics of space exploration?

Put the phrase “private space exploration” into a search engine and a wealth of links emerges. Several have titles such as: “Six private companies that could launch humans into space”, “The world’s top 10 most innovative companies in space” or “10 major players in the private sector space race”. What is immediately apparent is that practically all these companies are based in the US.

There is a big difference between building and launching satellites into low Earth orbit for telecommunications and sending crew and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and beyond. Private companies in several nations have been engaged in the satellite market for many years. Their contributions to the development of non-governmental space exploration has helped to lay the trail for entrepreneurs with the vision and resources to develop their own pathways to space.

Today, several companies in the US are looking very specifically at human spaceflight. The three that are perhaps furthest down the road are SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. The main goals of all three companies is to reduce the cost of access to space – mainly through reuse of launchers and spacecraft – making space accessible to people who are not specially trained astronauts. One thing these companies have in common is the private passion of their chief executives.

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, a charismatic entrepreneur, engineer, inventor and investor. The ambition of SpaceX is “to revolutionise space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets”. To this end, the company has specialised in the design, manufacture and launch of rockets, providing direct competition to the United Launch Alliance (between Boeing and Lockheed Martin) that had been the contract holder of choice for launch of NASA and Department of Defense rocket launches.

Its success has been spectacular. Having developed the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft, it became the first commercial company to dock a spacecraft at the ISS in 2012. The firm now has a regular run there, carrying cargo. But so far, no astronauts. However, the Falcon Heavy is comparable to the Saturn 5 rocket that launched the Apollo astronauts, and SpaceX has designed its vehicle with a view to sending astronauts to the moon by 2018, and to Mars as early as 2023.

SpaceX Crew Dragon docking with the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX

On September 29, Musk refined his plans, announcing the BFR project (which I like to pretend stands for Big F**king Rocket). This would replace the Falcon and Dragon spacecraft – and would not only transport cargo and explorers to the moon and Mars, but could also reduce travel times between cities on Earth. Musk calculates it could take as little as 29 minutes to fly from London to New York.

Whether the company succeeds in sending astronauts to the moon in 2018 remains to be seen. Either way, a lot could be going on then – 2018 is also the year when Blue Origin, founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos, the technology and retail entrepreneur behind Amazon, aims to launch people to space. But its ambition is different from that of SpaceX. Blue Origin is focusing on achieving commercially available, sub-orbital human spaceflight – targeting the space tourism industry. The company has developed a vertical launch vehicle (New Shepard, after the first American astronaut in space, Alan Shepard) that can reach the 100km altitude used to define where “space” begins. The rocket then descends back to Earth, with the engines firing towards the end of the descent, allowing the spacecraft to land vertically. Test flights with no passengers have made successful demonstrations of the technology. The trip to space and back will take about 10 minutes.

But Blue Origin has got some competition from Virgin Galactic, which describes itself as “the world’s first commercial spaceline”. Founded in 2004 by Richard Branson, also a technology and retail entrepreneur, it plans to carry six passengers at a time into sub-orbital space and give them about six minutes of weightlessness in the course of a two and a half hour flight.

The technology differs from that of SpaceX and Blue Origin in that the launch into space is not from the ground, but from a jet airplane. This mothership flies to an altitude of about 18km (about twice as high as regular aircraft fly) and releases a smaller, rocket-powered spacecraft (SpaceShip Two) which is propelled to an altitude of about 100km. The programme has been delayed by technical difficulties – and then by the tragic loss of pilot Mike Alsbury, when SpaceShip Two exploded in mid-air during a test flight in 2014. No date is yet set for the first passengers to fly.

There’s also the Google Lunar XPrize competition, announced in 2007, with the tagline: “Welcome to the new space race”. The aim of the prize is to launch a robotic mission to the moon, place a lander on the surface and drive 50 metres, sending back high-quality images and video. The competition is still in progress. Five privately funded teams must launch their spacecraft to the moon by the end of 2017.

Powerful international ties

The changes are taking place against a backdrop of tried and tested international collaboration in space, which took off in earnest at the end of the space race. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the US and Russia space programmes complemented each other beautifully – though perhaps not intentionally. Following the cessation of Apollo in 1975, the US space programme focused its efforts on robotic exploration of the solar system.

The Voyager probes gave us amazing images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The Mariner and Viking missions to Mars led to Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. Messenger orbited Mercury and Magellan orbited Venus. When New Horizons launched to Pluto in 2006, it was a mission to visit the last planet left unexplored in the solar system.

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