How private companies are getting ahead in the space race.

How Private Companies Are Getting Ahead in the Space Race

SpaceX Falcon heavy landing. Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

Back in the 1950s, the era of space travel was in infancy. The two superpowers United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were competing against each other and when Sputnik entered space, followed by the Laika event and then finally Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man to enter space, the Soviet Union already had an upper hand. For the USA, the Apollo program accelerated the technological prowess of the USA, and the competition set by the cold war competition made sure the first man was finally on the Moon.

What motivated us back then?

When Neil Armstrong landed on Moon, he must have been filled with a deep sense of achievement not only for his country but for the whole of mankind. His famous quote:That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

became one of the most defining quotes of the 20th century. The space race had reached its pinnacle, so to speak, and what was left was setting humans on a path of space exploration from where we have not looked back ever since. Partly motivated by the same feelings of demonstrating technological prowess and making a mark among the leagues of developed nations, India, China, the European Union (EU) and Japan started their own space programs. What started as a race between the two superpowers, became a matter of national pride for most of the countries, and having their own space program was considered a mark of progress and intellectual development. The Chandrayan or the Mangalyan missions were the Apollo moment for us Indians, where a lot of people are still confused about whether the missions to Mars or the Moon are of any help in eliminating the rampant poverty! Nevertheless, the money has flowed in and ISRO has a lot of ambitious projects lined up for the decade.

The entrance of big corporates

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket landing. Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons.

Coming to the league of developed nations and fast-forwarding to 2021, the entry of big corporations has steered the game in a very different direction. Elon Musk claims to provide the launches at a fraction of the cost involved with a typical NASA launch and of course it sounds good to politicians. It came as no surprise when back in May 2020, after extensive testing, for the first time NASA astronauts were on board a private launch vehicle, developed by SpaceX. This was one of the defining moments of 2020.

SpaceX is not happy with only launching the astronauts to space. Rather it has big plans to transform the idea of going to Mars. Mars has been an object of fascination and of course, it is being promoted as the next destination for humans. This thought seemed outlandish a couple of decades ago. Transporting a large quantity of cargo and then followed by a population of humans, to terraform the Martian surface is the aim Elon musk is targeting and only time will tell how much of it can be achieved. With space tourism getting attention in the coming days, people like Richard Branson are also in the race to build spaceports and launch ‘safari’ tours into space. Seems promising, only if we don’t think of the price tag.

Meanwhile, the swarm of satellites being launched for commercial operations around the world is making sure the space technology is entering the phase where the sheer volume will lower down the prices. Mass production and consumption always lead to the lowering of prices of commodities, and the prices of transporting a kilogram of cargo to space have come down significantly now.

I believe soon, the space race will be dictated by two main operations:

* Launching and placing satellites into near, mid, and high earth orbits. This has been and will continue to be the mainstay of all space-based corporations including SpaceX.
* Launching heavy cargo to far-off missions. This will include all missions to the Moon and Mars. These missions will be rare and costly as they require years to plan and execute.

Of course none of the above requires a lot of effort in research and development as these goals have been achieved repeatedly in the past few years. What is required is the cost optimization of the operations. Cost is the biggest barrier in space exploration.

The reusable rocket:

In the past 10 years, I think the reusable Falcon 9 has been the most effective development in space technology. Failed 4 times before making a successful landing, the Falcon 9 has the potential to revolutionize the way we think of space launches. The traditional multi-stage rockets being used to launch cargo and people into space are ‘single use’ and the segments of the rocket fall into the ocean once the burn-in period is finished. With Falcon 9, the rocket lands back onto a ramp, making its reusability possible. This itself is a huge cost-saving step and will prepare the ground for the rockets of the future.The maiden launch of the SpaceX Falcon heavy rocket. Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons.

Based on the ongoing events, I think we are in a space race again, but with a twist. This time it is not the cold war rivalry between two powerful nations, but the corporate one, where the primary goal will be to put forward a cheaper and safer alternative to the other competitors. National pride is not the fuel of this space race anymore.

Who will lead?

Companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin can lead the operation or technical part of the missions by reducing costs and enhancing safety but the real ideas and leadership will still come from the well-established institutions. Led by the visionary CEOS, SpaceX and Blue Origin can potentially be the leaders in the space race a few years down the line but what happens when these CEOs get replaced? Elon musk is truly enthusiastic about sending humans to Mars and terraforming it, but would the company be interested in sending a mission to Europa or Titan? Huge government institutions funded by the taxpayers don’t have to face this problem as their fundamental goal is research. Research is prioritized and rewarded over all other things. This aspect itself sometimes makes space programs costly. Whatever the course this space race may take in the upcoming future, there can’t be denying that big corporations are here to stay and possibly take over a huge chunk of the space operations. However, the aspects regarding the planning and design of new space explorations will still be left to government-funded agencies.

Space travel is gaining traction. The companies focussing on sending ‘non-astronauts’ to space for tourism purposes will make sure the launch costs will come down and we’ll see more regular space launches. It may even be possible in the near future that the cargo and human operations to space will be managed like the air traffic is co-ordinated presently.

Deeper space

Presently, a large variety of space-based satellites are placed in various orbits ranging from Low Earth orbits to the Lagrange points. Again, the launch of such precious cargo can be managed by the space companies, which is fine. The real problem is when we move ahead from sending probes to these orbits and then subsequently to Mars before thinking of sending probes to interstellar space.The “Pale Blue Dot” image taken from Voyager 1 shows the Earth as a tiny dot in the middle of this streak of light. This image was republished in 2020 by NASA with some photographic edits. Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons

The human mind knows no boundaries. What might seem laughable 20 years ago is entirely feasible today. What about the interstellar probes? A couple of Voyager probes were launched back in 1977, both of which have entered interstellar space now. With all the talk of space explorations, are we in a position to launch a new set of 21st-century Voyager probes now?

What about a swarm of Voyager probes to travel the interstellar space and look for signs of interstellar life. Of course, missions like these need years of planning and inter-government collaborations. But where do the space companies fit into this picture? Are they in the stage of developing the space probes? It doesn’t seem plausible now. I guess the entire space race is focused on the launch vehicles and transport of passengers cargo to space, the Moon, and eventually to Mars repeatedly and reducing costs and safety enhancements subsequently. Who knows what form it might take with time!The terminal building of Spaceport America, in New Mexico, USA. It is the first commercial spaceport to operate anywhere in the world. This will pave way for commercial space travel. Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons.

Being an astronomer, and highly enthusiastic about space exploration, I can’t hide my excitement regarding the current developments in the space race. The days when there will be a taxi service as Elon Musk proposes between Earth and Mars seem distant for now but are extremely workable looking at the renewed enthusiasm in space tech. I sincerely hope human beings become a space-faring civilization soon.

How private companies are getting ahead in the space race. was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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