Your Space or Mine?
Saara Bhatia and Steven Wheeler examine the influence of concentrated investment in the commercial sector upon space policy and assess arguments for and against the proliferation of the privatisation of space.
National policies on the exploration of space have largely restricted the capacity to both ferry astronauts into low-Earth orbit (LEO) and launch unmanned objects within and far beyond the extent of Earth’s gravitational field, to dedicated agencies that are funded and administered by the government. Over the last 10-15 years the private sector has become the most preeminent actor in delivering national space policy objectives; in an industry that was estimated to be worth $447bn in 2020, 80% of revenues were generated by expenditure within the commercial sector.
Courtesy of Getty; The Atlantic
“We choose to go to the Moon… we choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” President John F. Kennedy’s statement of intent, delivered at Rice University in September 1962, was a vision of human endeavour that came to be realised within seven years. The United States had snatched final victory from the Soviet Union in the space race with an extraordinary investment in the Apollo program. Three years later man would step upon the Moon’s surface for the final time. The relationship between the United States and Soviet Union entered a period of détente from April 1972 and the pursuit of manned exploration was deemed to be an unsustainable burden for taxpayers to carry. Correspondingly the budget of NASA was cut in response and resources were instead invested in creating a routine transportation capacity in the Space Shuttle to deploy and sustain objects in LEO missions and launch reliable, unmanned probes into the furthest reaches of the Solar System. Cost and risk minimisation came to characterise the direction of US space policy for the next three decades.
Courtesy of Statista
Return to the Moon
How has this phase of policy changed? President Trump, in December 2017, signed Space Policy Directive 1 which marked a stake in the ground for the reinvigoration of the US space program and a Kennedy-esque call to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024 and further afield to Mars in the 2030s. Space Policy Directive 1 precipitated the Artemis program, a blueprint for NASA to deliver an ongoing claim for the primacy of the US’ role in space exploration in recognition of competition from China and India. A further objective set out in the Artemis plan is to trigger U.S. economic stimulus (principally through research and development) and the integration of commercial and international partners into a “new and sustainable lunar economy.”
New and Old Rivalries
President Putin in 2018 acknowledged the demise of Russian leadership in space; Chairman of the Accounts Chamber and Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin further commented in November 2018 the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, was the state enterprise with the highest losses due to theft, corruption, and irrational spending. Putin has elected to follow a co-operative approach to the establishment of a lunar base with the Chinese space agency, China National Space Administration, whilst conversely choosing to depart from the multinational International Space Station in 2024 in favour of a Russian space station. China’s State Council Information published a white paper in January 2022 setting out how it will deliver President Xi’s vision for Chinese leadership in space over the next five years. CNSA will complete a national space station (and laboratory) and, “continue studies and research on the plan for a human lunar landing.” The exertion of a policy that references manned spaceflight from the United States, China and to some extent Russia, has connotations of the Cold War space race. NASA is now joined by a stable of international agencies and commercial partners to facilitate a new generation of policymaking in the West and a volte-face on attitudes towards the value of human spaceflight.
Do Look Up?
The proliferation of commercial launchers within a competitive market has contributed to a steady reduction in the cost of deploying payloads across all weight classifications, primarily into LEO. SpaceX, Arianespace and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) have delivered the bulk of the United States’ outsourced launch capacity and each have demonstrated a reliable record since 1996 with success rates of 98.57%, 95.5% and 100% respectively, across the heaviest of their vehicles. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has come to rely on these commercial partners to insert objects into orbit and beyond; the US has further been able to move away from a model of purchasing seats on the Russian Soyuz to ferry astronauts to the ISS.
Courtesy of CSIS Aerospace Security Project
One of the primary technologies that has led to a reduction in the cost of launches is a focus on the recovery and reuse of as many stages of the vehicle as possible. 91% of the first stage boosters were successfully landed from all Falcon 9 launchers increasing to 94% for the Block 5 iteration. The synchronised landing burns and gentle settlement of the Falcon Heavy 1 boosters on the pads at Kennedy Space Centre in 2018 took our breath away in its novelty and display of technological prowess; now such recovery is pedestrian. Re-use of the boosters has both drastically reduced the volume of material required to manufacture the vehicles and is reflected in the lower cost to deploy a kilogram of mass relative to earlier launchers (such as the Space Shuttle). It is now feasible for a handful of private businesses to deliver payloads into orbit that were once commercially unviable. The proliferation of ‘CubeSats’ is a testimony to the accessibility that commercial launch capacity has brought about - as evidenced from NanoSats.eu, many countries have deployed or are planning to deploy satellites for the first time with clients encompassing universities, governments and private companies.
Courtesy of NanoSats.eu
Whilst the commercial sector has created the capacity for competitively priced, unmanned spaceflight, freeing up NASA to achieve greater value for money in its endeavour to deliver a capability for Lunar and Martian manned spaceflight, the ‘privatisation’ of space has equally come in for criticism. Demonstrator missions advocated by some of the wealthiest backers of these commercial launch providers have led to discussion about the suitability of private space ‘tourism’ which is examined in closer detail herein.
The privatisation of space travel has been packaged to us in a way which highlights the opportunities it presents in solving some of the world’s greatest problems. It isn’t just about making technological advancements in leaps and bounds, but about recognizing the need for alternate sources of energy and looking beyond the earth to find them, thus reducing the negative impact of using non-renewable resources. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin’s vision statement sums this up well saying:
“In order to preserve Earth, Blue Origin believes that humanity will need to expand, explore, find new energy and material resources, and move industries that stress Earth into space.”
This space race has also encouraged innovation in technology allowing future space exploration to become more sustainable through the birth of reusable rockets, back in 2015! Blue Origin being the first to accomplish this feat, with SpaceX right at their heels, successfully developing their reusable Dragon 9 rockets and the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket.
However, there are environmental consequences as well that arise from the emergence of the space tourism industry. In an article by UCL Associate Professor Eloise Marais, she writes that rockets emit 100 times more CO₂ per passenger than flights. The propellants used to launch rockets into space generate large amounts of greenhouse gases and air pollutants, such as CO2, soot and water vapour.
About two-thirds of the propellant exhaust is released into the stratosphere (12 km-50 km) and mesosphere (50 km-85 km), where it can persist for at least two to three years. The very high temperatures during launch and re-entry also convert stable nitrogen in the air into reactive nitrogen oxides. This leads to the depletion of our already fragile ozone layer.
During launch, rockets emit between 4x to 10x more nitrogen oxides than Drax, the largest thermal power plant in the UK, in the same period.
To regulate pollution caused due to this new industry, a better understanding is needed of the effect these billionaire astronauts will have on our planet’s atmosphere.
Social and Governance
Is it right for the richest 0.00001% to spend billions and billions on commercialising space travel and get into an ego war about who gets there first? Especially when there are so many more equally pressing issues plaguing earth, from the climate crisis, record breaking high temperatures, devastating wildfires, historic flooding.
This obsession with being first, comes at the cost of safety. Ally Abrams, the former head of Blue Origin employee communications who recently wrote a whistleblower essay (co-signed by 20 anonymous current and former Blue Origin employees) detailing safety concerns and rampant sexism at the company.
“Bob Smith is one of the most incapable leaders I have ever encountered, passion withers in his presence. Plenty of engineers didn’t feel comfortable raising safety and quality concerns for fear of retaliation, which is a very scary thing when you’re working on a high-risk, experimental vehicle,” said Abrams.
“Is anyone else alarmed that billionaires are having their own private space race while record-breaking heatwaves are sparking a ‘fire-breathing dragon of clouds’ and cooking sea creatures to death in their shells?” tweeted former U.S. Labour Secretary Robert Reich.
UN World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley tweeted, “Hey, @RichadBranson, @elonmusk and @JeffBezos, so excited to see you compete on who gets to space first! BUT, I would love to see you TEAM up together to save the 41 million people who are about to starve this year on Earth! It only takes $6 Billion. We can solve this quickly!”
Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development and Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity points out that we shouldn’t stop dreaming about exploring the unknown cosmos, but we should focus on “some quintessentially earthly priorities” too. “Affordable healthcare. Decent homes for the poorest in society. A solid education for our kids. Reversing the decades-long precarity in the livelihoods of the frontline workers – the ones who saved our lives. Regenerating the devastating loss of the natural world. Replacing a frenetic consumerism with an economy of care and relationship and meaning.”
I believe, even though there are opportunity costs of privatising space travel, there are several opportunities that arise as well. Such as, using Planet’s network of satellites to track crop health, factory emissions, and rainforest loss. The satellite internet services from SpaceX and OneWeb could potentially serve billions of people who can’t get broadband access another way.
Even Richard Branson’s trip to space included Sirisha Bandla, who flew with Branson, conducting an experiment on plant gene expression, which turned out to be a success. The experiment itself was also a test of whether scientific research is feasible on Virgin Galactic’s spaceflights.
There are a lot of benefits that can be reaped from the privatisation of space exploration and travel. But there are just as many that critique the “frivolity of orbital tourism.” The question that comes to mind is whether this race to privatise space is truly for the greater good, or is it just the world’s richest men in battle for their egos, entertaining themselves with joy rides into space, with capitalism at the heart of it.