Selling Space: Are we entering a new era of commercial space exploration?

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You may have noticed billionaires like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk making headlines recently for announcing their new involvements in outer space. These men are not trained astronauts or astrophysicists, yet they have exerted significant control over modern space exploration as the owners of private space technology companies. Since space exploration is new relative to the trajectory of human history, the idea of private companies engaging in spaceflight was something that humanity had never encountered before until the 1990’s. The privatization and commercialization of the space industry is growing, which might forever change the way that space travel is conducted.

Outer space has traditionally been dominated by government agencies. The United States has relied on NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to develop, test, and launch new technology into orbit and conduct extensive research that has improved life on earth and humans’ understanding of outer space. Other governments have relied on their own agencies to accomplish similar tasks. In 1998, several governments came together to create the International Space Station. The International Space Station was a collaborative effort by Russia, the United States, Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency (which includes ten European nations) to place a stable structure into earth’s orbit that would allow scientists from all over the world to conduct research on it consistently. The ISS was successfully launched over two decades ago, and it has provided humanity with important knowledge and benefits ever since.

However, the world is now entering a new era of space exploration – one that is dominated by private, profit-seeking companies rather than governments – and companies such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX are at the forefront of this change. This article will discuss one aerospace company in particular that has played quite a significant role in this shift: SpaceX.

The official goal of SpaceX is quite ambitious: to provide the means necessary for humans to live on other planets (such as Mars), or to make life multi-planetary. This might sound like it came straight out of a Sci-Fi movie, but with the rate at which the space industry is currently developing, this goal might not be as far-fetched as you’d think. SpaceX has made many improvements to rocket and spacecraft technology. For example, SpaceX built and successfully launched Falcon 9, the world’s first reusable rocket that is capable of traveling further than earth’s orbit. Rocket reusability significantly decreases the cost of space travel, allowing for greater exploration overall.

Falcon 9 made headlines on September 15, 2021, when it carried four civilians into space as part of the Inspiration4 mission. Inspiration4 was the first time in world history that an orbital mission was made up entirely of civilians. Not only was the trip made up of civilians, but it was also privately funded. Jared Issacman essentially “bought” the Inspiration4 mission from SpaceX, announcing the beginning of commercial spaceflight. Although the exact sum that Issacman paid is unknown, it’s estimated that the four seats he purchased totaled about $200 million. So, good news! If you’re looking to launch into outer space next weekend, SpaceX is selling tickets to the International Space Station for a measly price of $55 million. It seems like space tourism might be a nice alternative to traditional tourism for the world’s bored billionaires going forward.

In addition to joyrides, SpaceX also offers the chance to hitch a ride into orbit. If you’re a small company or research institution looking to send your satellite into space, booking a ride for your satellite to earth’s orbit is almost as easy as booking a seat on a train or a bus. The Smallsat Rideshare Program allows both governments and private companies to send their own cargo (spacecrafts) into orbit for the very low price of $1.1 million. This rideshare program has been a success so far, as several SpaceX transporters have already carried hundreds of satellites into orbit. For example, 143 satellites (both publicly and privately owned) were sent into orbit on Transporter-1 during the first rideshare mission in January of 2021.

So, what do these new developments mean for the public space sector? In a statement published on its website, NASA admitted how its role in the space industry has changed and explained what the future may hold: “Unlike the way the space program started, NASA will not be racing a competitor. Rather, we will build upon the community of industrial, international, and academic partnerships forged for the space station. Commercial companies will play an increasing role in the space industry...” Since NASA is not able to keep up financially with the better-funded private companies, NASA’s role in the space industry will continue to become less competitive, and its partnerships will continue to become more important. SpaceX and other private companies’ partnerships with NASA have provided the means necessary for NASA to continue designing advanced technologies, launching new spacecraft into orbit, and transporting astronauts to the International Space Station. In fact, SpaceX manages roughly two-thirds of all NASA launches today. NASA is now (arguably) dependent on its relationship with private companies in order to function to the fullest extent.

Although NASA’s partnerships with private companies have promoted innovation, the involvement of private companies could be very problematic in the future for the space industry. First, private companies have interests that may (and often do) differ from the interests of the general public. Further, while NASA has always aimed to be a role model in space technology for the rest of the world, SpaceX is less concerned with being exemplary. Many scientists worry that SpaceX will not strictly follow NASA's tradition of safety and environmental care. SpaceX has not been nearly as careful as NASA when it comes to polluting the skies. Experts predict that SpaceX’s new Starship rocket will stir up more dust and rocks than previous projects, and this debris has the potential to end up in earth’s orbit (where it could disrupt existing satellites and projects). Finally, many are opposed to the idea of space “joyrides,” because they are unnecessary, not environmentally friendly, and they don’t contribute anything to scientific research except infuriating scientists in the field.

Although it’s hard to predict where the space industry is headed next, there’s no doubt that private space companies will play a role in the future.


More posts by Molly Knoell.
Selling Space: Are we entering a new era of commercial space exploration?
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