It has been nine years since the US launched people into space. The well-known Atlantis space shuttle took off from launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was also from this launchpad that Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin (or Buzz Aldrin as he is better known) were launched into space in 1969 and landed on the moon.
Post this successful take-off, many more launches happened from the launchpad (some that weren’t so successful): the Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. However, the US hasn’t had a launch system for nearly a decade. Every time it had wanted to send people to the International Space Station, it had to rely on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, lifted off from Kazakhstan.
While NASA was contemplating what to do with a launch facility that is rusting away, a new customer emerged: the tech genius Elon Musk who had made billions of dollars selling his e-banking company PayPal to eBay. He also founded the automobile company Tesla and the space transportation company SpaceX. After contacting NASA, Musk was given a 20-year lease on the site.
That was great news for him but he wasn’t the only participant in the space race. The billionaire founder of the retail company Amazon and the aerospace manufacturing company Blue Origin Jeff Bezos was also bidding for NASA launch pads. After Musk was given permission to use the 39A complex, Bezos was able to lease out the complex next to it: No. 36. This was the historic launchpad from which space probes were launched to Venus (in the 1970s) and Mars (in the 1960s).
It was only two Saturday’s ago on the 30th of May that something revolutionary yet again happened at 39A. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon was launched into space taking NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station. The event was witnessed by millions of people all across the world, bringing America back into the game (“Launch America” was the name given to the event). Every aspect of the launch, from the spacecraft to the launchpad, belonged to an American company- SpaceX. This places the company in an incredibly powerful position, putting it head-to-head with only two other superpowers in the field of space: Russia and China. But how did this happen?
The first change happened in 2010. The NASA space shuttle program was nearing its end, which was about the time when the Obama administration decided to invest government resources differently. Rather than having NASA transport cargo and put people into orbit, it would instead channel its resources and expertise into conducting deep space ventures such as preparing humans to go to Mars. NASA would work on building a heavy-lift space launch system (SLS) and a spacecraft, called Orion, that would take off on it.
Alongside these efforts, the government was also encouraging private companies to develop SLSs for near space ventures, an example being moon tourism. It would even underwrite the launches, ensuring that a portion of the risk is borne by the government.
Note that these private companies are not competing with NASA. NASA is not only investing in these companies, it is also paying them for their services- it is their biggest customer. To illustrate, the company has invested over $8 billion in Boeing and SpaceX over the last 10 years, with a majority of those funds being reserved for the manufacturing of spacecraft and launchers. The remaining amount is set aside for purchasing 12 flights to the ISS. Six will be launched in Musk’s Crew Dragon and the other six in Boeing’s Starliner, which will be launched sometime in early 2021.
Clearly, this worked. NASA was able to harness the efficiency benefits- both in terms of cost and time- of privatization by contributing to the development of two separate space launch systems at only half of the cost that the government would have incurred. This was mainly because these ventures were also able to attract a few billionaire investors.
Despite this, there are a few things that are long overdue. NASA’s SLS is yet to be inaugurated and the launch of Orion has also been postponed. Meanwhile, Chinese rovers have landed on the moon.
Beijing has invested huge amounts of capital, especially human capital, into its space exploration programs in an attempt to not be left behind in the race. It is the current launch leader with 34 of the 102 launch vehicles in space being Chinese while only 27 are American. For this year, the country has set a milestone of sending at least 48 satellites, shuttles, and other space vehicles into orbit. Its target is the moon and a Chinese astronaut (or taikonaut as they are called) may plant the country’s flag on the satellite soon enough.
This is the reason that Donald Trump, in just his first year as the President, signed an executive order that directs NASA to land the next American on the moon no longer than 2024. This year, NASA has pitted three companies- including Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origin- against each other to accomplish this mission. The incentive? A development grant of $1 billion. We may know who the winner is by early 2021.
But what about NASA’s SLS and Orion spacecraft? And the mission to Mars? All of these projects are on hold as of now and the organization hasn’t announced when it will start working on them again. For now, the priority is winning the race to the moon.
Private aerospace companies have always been instrumental in American space missions. The launch vehicle that took Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon? It was built by Boeing. The capsule in which they landed on the moon? It was manufactured by the Grumman Corporation. However, it is different this time as previously, equipment was simply purchased from private companies and used by the government. Now, the entire process- from manufacturing to deployment- is in the hands of private companies, namely SpaceX and Blue Origin. The government’s only role is as the bank and underwriter. After Musk and Bezos’ leases end, the high-tech space equipment, that are more powerful than those developed back in the day by a superpower like the Soviet Union, will remain in the hands of the billionaires.
In 2018, SpaceX had already launched a spacecraft into orbit. Specifically, it launched a red Tesla Roadster car in a Falcon Heavy launcher flight. It was even fitted with a stereo system that played David Bowie’s Starman as it entered into orbit. Whether Musk was honest about his intention to inspire people about the prospect of space travel or whether this was a move that was meant to boost Tesla’s stock price, it nevertheless showed people what the future of space travel holds. Musk will be able to send more than just cars to more than just the moon. We may be able to use SpaceX’s commercial space travel service to even take a trip to Mars.
To get to the Crew Dragon launch site, astronauts Behnken and Hurley drove in a Tesla Model X. There is still some contention over this. Having landed on the moon, the Apollo 8 crew recited verses from the Book of Genesis. Atheists sued the government on the basis that using public funds for religious propaganda is wrong. But what about broadcasting the latest model of Tesla to millions of people? Can public funds be used for car advertisements?
Mainly, these funds are being used to send NASA astronauts to space in a privately manufactured aircraft. And the same funds are also being used by Musk to achieve his mission of expanding humanity into space and allowing people to settle on Mars. NASA may or may not be involved. If Musk and Bezos decide not to help the government after all, they will be directly competing with NASA. If this situation comes to pass, the US will separate into 2 distinct entities in the space race: on one hand, there’s NASA, representative of the public sector, and on the other, there are two billionaires, representative of the private sector. But what exactly does this mean for national identity? If the first ‘flags’ planted on Mars are those of SpaceX or Blue Origin, does it mean that America was the first to land on Mars?
Cause for Concern
It is important that the development of spacecraft is done sustainably to prevent light pollution and the accumulation of space debris. Light pollution mainly occurs because of the glare caused by the reflection of light on the spacecraft and when they pass in front of celestial objects.
However, this is not necessarily how it is being done by SpaceX. The company is working on the launch of 13,000 satellites for its internet services company Starlink, which aims to not only provide internet in every corner of the Earth but also every corner of space- a development that is crucial for Mars settlements.
This is causing some problems. The light pollution caused by the satellites is preventing astronomers from seeing celestial objects. One of the satellites also nearly collided with a satellite launched for research by the European Space Agency last year. In the future, any spacecraft launched into space must be thoroughly sterilized to prevent space contamination.
These countries and companies also have immense power in deciding who gets to go to space and who doesn’t. For a long time, it was mainly in the hands of Americans and Russians. America, for instance, had invited the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon on a space mission, given the amicable relationship between both countries (a Chinese or Iranian astronaut was never invited).
Similarly, Bezos and Musk get to decide who sits and flies to space on their spacecraft. Given that Alibaba is an Amazon competitor, SpaceX and Alibaba could partner up so that Musk has a leg up in the competition (and so that he can provoke Bezos). Maybe Musk would allow the retail giant to set up a package delivery system to his complex on Mars. Or maybe Jack Ma would be the first ever tourist. It won’t be surprising if Musk did something like this given his and Bezos’ longstanding, and sometimes childish, rivalry (two exhibits being the ‘time to break up Amazon’ and ‘copycat’ incidents).
Setting this aside, it must be acknowledged that space travel is highly lucrative for these companies. NASA administrator James Bridenstine says that the total worth of the space economy is at $383 billion annually. This is higher than Israel’s GNP. The real gems are not satellite launches, they are space tourism and mineral mining, especially in asteroids or moons. High start-up costs were previously a huge barrier to entry that prevented private companies from entering these markets. However, with their founders’ billion-dollar net worths and some government subsidies, they were able to get started. These companies didn’t limit their exploration to just near space- they also expanded into deep space. Can we expect the same ruthless corporate efficiency that they showed for their companies here on Earth? Undoubtedly, yes.
That is not necessarily a good thing. For example, despite a turnover of around $11 billion in 2018, Amazon didn’t pay a single cent in corporate tax. Moreover, nearly 10% of Amazon employees working in warehouse facilities are earning below minimum wage, requiring government assistance to meet their most basic needs. Many of them fear wasting time on toilet breaks so they urinate into plastic bottles. How will Bezos’ mercilessness play out in his space travel attempts? It would probably be just as bad, if not worse.
However, Musk is the one who has become a monopoly in commercial space travel. About 65% of all international space contracts come to him. Before Crew Dragon, he launched more mass into space than Russia, China, and Europe combined. Bezos, meanwhile, is selling Amazon shares, trying to enter the market.
Just as for everything, we can argue both for and against big business, especially in technology. On one hand, services like Amazon, PayPal, and Google have made our lives incredibly easier with their ingenious inventions. On the other hand, wealth inequality is widening, human rights are being violated, and these companies are above being held accountable by the government. This is not a reputation that companies venturing into space travel should have, so we must proceed with caution.