The space race between the United States and Russia began exactly sixty years ago (on October 4, 1957) with a beep of the Sputnik satellite and ended 18 years later with a handshake in space. This image marked the beginning of several decades of international space collaboration. But in the last ten years, a huge change has occurred: space is no longer the exclusive preserve of government agencies. Private companies have entered the adventure of exploration and are propelling the sector forward, more vigorously and rapidly than if it had been left to governments alone.
It is no exaggeration to say that a new space race has begun, in which private companies compete with each other and with government organizations. But there is a big difference from the previous period, when government agencies had the exclusive right to conquer space. Competition is now played out to conquer clients and no longer to show its domination by being the first to achieve a certain objective. So who are the main players and how will they change the science, technology and policy of space exploration?
There is a big difference between building and launching satellites into low earth orbit for telecommunications on the one hand, and sending crews and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and beyond on the other. Private companies from several countries have been active in the satellite market for many years. Their contribution to the development of non-governmental space exploration has helped to pave the way for a few entrepreneurs who have the vision and resources to develop their own ambitions towards space.
Today, several American companies are focusing on human spaceflight. The three most advanced are SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. The main objective of these three companies is to reduce the cost of access to space - mainly through the re-use of launchers and spacecraft - by making space accessible to people who are not specially trained astronauts. One characteristic these companies have in common is the consuming passion of their entrepreneurs.
SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the charismatic entrepreneur, engineer, inventor and well-known investor. SpaceX's ambition is to " revolutionize space technologies, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets ». To this end, the company has specialized in the design, manufacture and launch of rockets, which is direct competition for United Launch Alliance (the alliance between Boeing and Lockheed Martin), which had been the prime contractor for the launch of NASA and Department of Defense rockets.
Elon Musk's success has been spectacular. After developing the launcher Falcon 9 and the spacecraft DragonIn 2012, Space X became the first commercial company to dock a spacecraft to the ISS. The company now has a regular presence there, transporting cargo. But for the time being, it does not take astronauts aboard its ships. However, the Falcon Heavy is comparable to the Saturn 5 rocket that launched the Apollo astronauts, and SpaceX has designed its vehicle to send astronauts to the Moon by 2018, and to Mars by 2023.
On September 29th, Musk refined his plans by announcing the project BFR (which, according to the legend, would be the acronym for Big F**king Rocket). This new rocket would replace the Falcon and the Dragon. Not only would it carry cargo and explorers to the Moon and Mars, but it could also reduce travel time between cities on Earth. Musk told the media that it could take less than 29 minutes to fly from London to New York City using this rocket.
It remains to be seen whether the company will succeed in sending astronauts to the Moon in 2018. In any case, 2018 is expected to be a very busy year for space announcements. Indeed, it is the year next when Blue Origin, founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos...the famous founder of Amazon, was about to launch passengers into space. But the ambition of Bezos is different from that of SpaceX. Blue Origin focuses on bringing human suborbital spaceflight to market, targeting the space tourism industry. The company has developed a vertical launcher (New ShepardIt is named after the first American astronaut in space, Alan Shepard) who can reach the altitude of 100 km, the distance at which space is considered to begin. The rocket then descends back to Earth, with the engines igniting towards the end of the descent, allowing the spacecraft to land vertically. Passengerless test flights have provided successful demonstrations of the technology. The return trip to space will take about 10 minutes.
But Blue Origin sees a competitor emerging: Virgin Galactic, which describes itself as " the world's first commercial space line ». Founded in 2004 by Richard BransonThe space company, also a technology and retail entrepreneur and founder of Virgin stores, plans to carry six passengers at a time into sub-orbital space and provide about six minutes of weightlessness during a two-and-a-half-hour flight.
The technology chosen by Branson differs from that of SpaceX and Blue Origin in that the launch into space is not from the ground but from a jet plane. This mother ship flies at an altitude of about 18 km (about twice as high as regular aircraft) and drops a smaller rocket-powered spacecraft (SpaceShip Two) which places it at an altitude of about 100 km. The program was delayed by technical difficulties and the tragic loss of pilot Mike Alsbury when SpaceShip Two exploded on a test flight in 2014. No date has yet been set for the first passengers to board.
In this list of projects, we should also mention the competition Google Lunar X Prizeannounced in 2007, with the slogan: " 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 of our natural satellite and roll 50 metres, returning high quality images and video. The competition is still ongoing. Five privately funded teams are expected to launch their spacecraft to the moon by the end of 2017.
Strong international links
These changes take place in a context of proven international collaboration in the space field. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the American and Russian space programmes complemented each other particularly well. After the Apollo shutdown in 1975, the US space program focused its efforts on robotic exploration of the solar system.
The Voyager probes gave us stunning images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The missions Mariner and Viking on Mars were the precursors of Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. Messenger orbited Mercury and Magellan around Venus. When the New Horizons mission launched to Pluto in 2006, the goal was to visit the last unexplored planet in the solar system.
Pluto photographed by New Horizons. NASA
Russia, for its part, has pursued another objective: manned space flight, with its incredibly successful Mir space station in orbit and its flight programme to transfer cosmonauts and cargo to Mir. Human space flight in the United States was revived with the space shuttle and its mission to build and occupy the International Space Station (ISS). The list of countries contributing to the ISS continues to grow. The shuttle program ended in 2011 and, since its successor Orion (built in collaboration with the European Space Agency, ESA) is not expected to enter service until at least 2023, the international community has had to rely on Russia to keep the ISS in a state of supply and occupation.
Today, alongside the United States and Russia, there are strong, dynamic and successful space programmes in Europe, Japan, India and China. The European Space Agency was created just two months before the historic 1975 handshake between astronauts and cosmonauts, after many years of independent aeronautical engineering research by European nations. Similarly, the Chinese, Japanese and Indian space agencies can trace their origins back to the 1960s. A number of smaller countries, including the United Arab Emirates, also have ambitious plans.
Of course, these countries also compete with each other. It has been widely speculated that China's entry would be enough to boost the US space programme. China has a well-developed space programme and is currently working to put a space station in orbit around the Earth around 2020. A prototype, Tiangong-2, has been in space for nearly a year and has been occupied by two astronauts (or "taikonauts") for a month.
China has also conducted three successful missions to the Moon. And its next mission, Chang' e 5, scheduled to launch in late 2017, is designed to bring samples from the Moon back to Earth. China also has a stated intention to put people on the moon by 2025, when the United States will test its new Orion satellite in orbit around our natural satellite.
History shows that, even if there is competition, the success of the last few decades certainly proves that it is possible to collaborate in space, even when tensions exist on land. In this respect, space exploration can even act as a buffer zone in relation to international politics, which is certainly worth undertaking. It will be interesting to see how a greater role for private companies in space exploration will affect these international collaborations, especially since much of the effort is located in the United States.
Healthy competition or dangerous game?
The entry of private actors in the space race has resulted in the recognition by financial circles of the viability of this type of investment. Indeed, a recent presentation to an international investment bank - under the heading "Space, the next investment frontier" - concluded that " This type of investment has helped to reduce launch costs and stimulate innovation in related industries, opening a new chapter in the history of the space economy. ".
One of Barack Obama's last commitments was to preside over the White House Conference on Borderswhere space exploration has been discussed as much in the context of American industry as in the desire to explore new worlds. NASA participated in the meeting, but the vast majority of speakers were from private technology and investment companies.
It may be a cynical thing to say, but once the investment starts flowing in, it won't be long before the lawyers are there. And that's another aspect of the explosion of interest in space commerce and tourism. Laws, statutes and other regulations are needed to govern the international character of space exploration. At present, the United Nations, through its Office for Outer Space Affairsis responsible for promoting international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. The Office also oversees the operation of the Outer Space Treatywhich provides a framework for the governance of space and activities that could be carried out in space. Although the obvious lack of "space policing" could suggest that these provisions can never be implemented in practice, it must be recognized that this Treaty has never been violated.
The text is designed in the same spirit as the international treaties governing maritime activities and the exploration of the Antarctic. Since its entry into force in 1967 with the first three signatories (the United States, the United Kingdom and the USSR), the treaty has been signed by 106 countries (including China and North Korea). Everyone has recognised the need for such a legal framework because, although the risks surrounding space exploration are high, the potential benefits are even greater.
Looking at the way more conventional companies, such as supermarkets for example, operate, it can be seen that competition drives down prices and there is little reason to believe that competition between space companies would follow a different model. In this case, greater risks could be taken in order to increase profitability. So far, there is no evidence that this is the case, but as the field develops and other private companies engage in space exploration, the likelihood of accidents or new risks will increase.
The treaty stipulates that a state launching a probe or satellite is obliged to pay damages in the event of an accident. But what if a private company launches an object that then causes damage in space. Who will have to pay the bill? The treaty may therefore need to be updated to make private companies more liable. The safety of astronauts, who are legally entitled to a safe existence in outer space, also poses serious problems. But lawyers are not sure whether the current law can be applied to private astronauts.
For the future, an expanded version of a civil aviation authority will be needed, which will direct and control routes, launches and landings on Earth, as well as landings between and on planetary bodies. All safety and security considerations related to air and maritime travel will be related to space travel at a much higher level, as the costs and risks are proportionally much higher. Specific provisions will be needed to address cases of a crash of a spacecraft or a collision between two spacecraft. Not to mention piracy or the possibility of hijacking. This may sound a little ominous when space exploration should be the stuff of dreams, but it will be a necessary development as we enter the era of space travel available to citizens, or at least the wealthiest among them.
The original space race was born out of the ideas and skills of visionary theoretical engineers, the Robert H Goddard, Wernher von Braun, Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky... Are we going too far in saying that the second space race will be powered by a new generation of entrepreneurs, the Bezos, Branson and Musk? If so, it is to be hoped that the main factor that will enable space activities to continue will not only be the possession of great fortunes, but that vision, ingenuity and the desire to improve the human condition will still be the main driving forces.
Monica GradyProfessor of Planetary and Space Sciences, The Open University