One small step for private companies: how the future of space travel is being redefined

There is a widening divide between “old space” – the domain of government agencies – and “new space”, which includes glamorous projects like rockets to Mars.

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At 0100 GMT on Monday morning, Zuma, a satellite with a secretive payload” was launched into orbit. The rocket launching it, Falcon 9, was created by SpaceX, the brainchild of irreverent tech billionare Elon Musk. The classified nature of its contents meant that the usual live feed that accompanies rocket launches was cut off after five minutes. The mission’s press release offered very little other detail.

All that is known about Zuma is that it contains a satellite manufactured by company Northrop Gumman for the US government, and was in low-earth orbit, as most commercial spacecraft tends to be. However, it remains unclear which government agency will be controlling the satellite, and what purposes the information it collects will serve.

SpaceX’s launch of Zuma is yet another sign that private companies are set to control the future of space exploration. In late January, SpaceX will be launching Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful operational rocket.

Historically, space exploration has been the domain of the state. It was a way to assert national identity through exploring a new frontier, and the Soviet-American space race of the 1960s was as much about political dominance as it was about technical innovation.

Once hurdles such as the limitations of computing power were surpassed, world powers began to invest significant amounts of money into exploring space. A recently released report from the US Academy of Natural Sciences emphasised the value of innovation in space exploration for its applications to problems on earth, such as farmers facing drought, a dynamic which will only become more pronounced in coming years. 

But rates of technological advancement and decreasing costs of production have enabled private companies to move from manufacturing low-orbit satellites to rather improbably advertising commercial flight to Mars (on the Virgin Galactic aircraft VSS Unity). These kinds of changes are fairly unprecedented, but the last few years have demonstrated the ability of commercial entities to come up with completely novel ways to explore space. 

A Financial Times article pointed out that pundits are increasingly seeing a split between “old space” – the domain of governments and well established contractors – and “new space”, which is where glamorous projects like SpaceX’s rockets to Mars reside. 

David Baker, from the British Interplanetary Society, the oldest space advocacy organisation globally, said: “Space is about applications – such as communications, weather forecasting, TV, data relay, navigation, monitoring Earth’s resources –  which are being increasingly handled by private companies, and exploration, which is the job of the big space agencies.

“The total global space industry is worth around $400bn a year, of which only 22 per cent is run by governments, and the public and private are not necessarily in competition with each other. The amount of tax paid by the private space-related applications industries more than pays for the government programmes.”

The government and the military have always enjoyed a favourable relationship with space exploration agencies, particularly in the USA. However, private spaceflight companies began to spring up as early as the 1980s, the first being Orbital Sciences, which already has a significant number of satellites and rockets in space in deals with Nasa. But companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin (headed by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos) have made significant headway into space exploration more recently, even surpassing government innovation by miles.

No state space agency has been able to reuse a rocket. By contrast, companies like Blue Origin and Space X have been able to do it so many times that it’s become a part of their business model. With the Zuma spacecraft, the first-stage booster rocket made a then unprecedented upright landing SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 in Florida's Cape Canaveral in Decemeber 2015, in what is now a typical SpaceX manoeuvre. Since many of these companeis have stated that their priorities are making space travel accessible and affordable, re-using rockets will drive down costs significantly. 

Moreover, rocket development in the US is in the hands of major corporations such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin, which did not see the value in spending research money on concepts such as “reusability”, which weren't considered essential to the development of their vehicles. 

“As a government agency, Nasa is a conservative, no-risk organisation, accountable to the taxpayer and with a budget authorised by Congress each year,” Baker points out. "With several billion dollars of private money at their disposal, entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos were able to do what they do best - use their own money to take risk and employ bright engineers whose ideas had otherwise been constrained by the bureaucratic baggage.”

Once the private space companies established themselves, they could however benefit from government money, in the form of contracts with Nasa to carry cargo to the International Space Station, and even, from 2019, to send astronauts from US soil. 

Long-term government contracts are indeed lucrative, and have sustained organisations such as Orbital Sciences, the world's oldest private spaceflight company, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Of course, the universe isn’t a free-for-all, and the private space companies also seem to be investing their hopes in space tourism. This is, however, hardly a novel idea: it was first proposed in 1968 after the first Apollo flight. Other recent money-making plans include developing asteroid mining for minerals (the US has already claimed legal ownership of any minerals found in space), or colonising space, which seems like the eventual aim of many of the private space corporations. SpaceX has established itself as a dominant player in space exploration, becoming the first commercial company to dock a spacecraft at the International Space Station in 2012. 

The majority of these companies are American and headquartered in California. Despite being encouraged by the culture of technology and the Obama administration, they have been beleagured by setbacks. For example, Virgin Galactic hasn't competed a single flight with paying customers in low-earth orbit in the ten years since Branson publicised his ambitions. 

But it's not all over for Nasa quite yet. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that US government and industry officials were given information to indicate that Zuma was a failure, further substantiating claims that Zuma was designated for espionage. However, Baker provided further technical clarification about the nature of the issue.

 "The total loss of the Zuma satellite was nothing to do with the SpaceX launch but rather the design of the adapter attaching the payload to the top of the rocket.This adapter is usually the responsibility of the company launching the rocket but because it was a highly secret satellite, it was Northrup Grumman's failure."

Fundamentally, space has very few rules. Both space explorers and the people on earth who put them there are in uncharted waters, given the lack of legislation governing extra-terrestrial affairs. Does the concept of sovereign territory apply in space, like it does in international waters? Is a Kessler effect scenario – where the density of satellites above Earth grows so exponentially that a collision between any two will cause resulting debris to break apart every other satellite – more likely as the atmosphere becomes over-saturated? 

Concerns about espionage and national security, a significant motivation for drawing a veil of secrecy over space exploration, take on cosmic dimensions in the relative lawlessness of space. A survey conducted in 2016 by the UK Department for Business and Trade Innovation highlighted the public's concerns around the relationship between the military and space, with one respondent recommending that companies “don’t put weapons up there”. 

Of course, it can’t be all doom and gloom. Undoubtedly, the efforts of private space companies to bring spaceflight to the masses has caused an increase in public engagement with space – a domain reserved for the very well-trained few can now be perceived as a potential holiday destination. These advancements present completely new challenges for everyone involved, but similar discussions might have been had 100 years ago.

Indeed, in the 1920s, as commercial air travel became more plausible, there were heated debates about whether it was actually as safe or as affordable as the companies advertised it to be. Now, people worry whether commercial space tourism will just end up being the playground of the extremely wealthy, and whether there are really any scientific benefits to be gained from vacations to the moon. Just as commercial aviation is now part and parcel of modern life, space travel could increasingly become just as normalised.

As of now, Nasa too is throwing its weight behind big-picture, ambitious projects such as returning to the moon or sending humans to Mars. But this time, the US space agency will have company.

“It's a true American story of entrepenurship and individual enterprise,” says Baker. “It's a win-win situation.”