65 years ago, at the dawn of the Space Age, most space projects were conducted by superpowers for strategic military purposes. Increasing the strategic capability of satellites, launch vehicles, and spacecraft was therefore a top priority, given that the use of reconnaissance satellites allowed each government to gain crucial insight into the other’s strategic nuclear infrastructure, conventional force deployments, and other military operations. Moreover, space capability could help the nuclear command and control infrastructure withstand even the most catastrophic conflict.
Following the thaw in geopolitical tensions and the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States and Russia were joined by a growing number of commercial players. Due to the emergence of these new players, the military paradigm underlying the concept of space power has shifted significantly.
Commercial space companies enter orbit
Today, nations can avoid the hassle of constructing their own satellites, by simply purchasing them from commercial vendors. Commercial space launch providers can also deploy these satellites into orbit, allowing countries to take advantage of satellite-based communications, weather monitoring, and earth observation without having to build up their own space industrial infrastructure. As a result, what was once a government-led activity is now shifting to private industry.
And yet international sales remain a relatively small part of the business, by modern standards. In 2021, the countries that exported the most spacecraft, satellites, and spacecraft launch vehicles were France ($1.22 billion), the United States ($524 million), China ($225 million), Italy ($177 million), and South Korea ($35.6 million).
The leading privately-funded space companies in this sector are Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), and Blue Origin LLC.
Led by space barons Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, these companies have popularized space in the private sector. They develop reusable boosters, launch civilians as well as commercial satellites into orbit, and deliver cargo to low Earth orbit. Due to this increase in interest from private companies, overall commercial activity in space nearly quadrupled in growth from $110 billion in 2005 to approximately $423 billion in 2020.
Making space for business
In recent decades, humanity has expanded its use of space exploration and utilization beyond its original military function. Through the integration of satellite and terrestrial networks, billions of people can stay online, and satellite remote sensing data can help urban planners and farmers make informed decisions about everything from infrastructure improvements to annual crop plantings.
In particular, position, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellites are increasingly used for tasks that go beyond maritime and aviation navigation. PNT-equipped farming machinery allows for greater efficiency when planting seeds and watering crops. PNT networks also support cellular communication, pipeline pumping stations, and monetary transactions as they provide critical timing signals.
The future of space missions
In the coming decades, space missions will focus on private space travel, missions to our own moon, and the study of Jupiter’s moons.
Concerning space travel, SpaceX has been sending astronauts into space aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft, some under contract with NASA to the International Space Station (ISS), and others on private missions.
In the summer of 2023, a major milestone is expected with SpaceX’s Polaris Dawn mission. During this mission, the four commercial astronauts onboard the Crew Dragon Capsule will aim for a maximum orbit of 1,200 kilometers — higher than any human spacecraft since the Apollo missions. Billionaire Jared Isaacman is funding the mission, as he did SpaceX’s first all-private human spaceflight in 2021. In addition, the crew will make the first-ever commercial human spaceflight excursion outside the spacecraft.
In regards to moon missions, multiple unmanned landings on the moon are scheduled for the next 12 months as part of a renewed US effort to bring humans back to the lunar surface. NASA and private space companies plan to travel the 240,000 miles to conduct landing tests, investigate the possibility of usable water ice (ice formed through direct freezing), and more.
The Artemis II mission in 2024, however, will not only involve a return to the moon, but also the first new human footsteps on the lunar surface since NASA’s final manned moon mission in 1972. Significantly, this effort marks a return to more complete forms of space travel, as opposed to merely orbital flights.
This year will also feature an exciting new Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission from the European Space Agency. Tasked with investigating the icy moons of our solar system’s largest planet, the spacecraft is slated to enter Jupiter’s orbit in 2031. Once there, it will conduct in-depth studies of Jupiter’s moons Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa, all of which are believed to conceal oceans that could support life. The Jupiter Icy Moon Europa mission aims to map Europa’s subsurface oceans using radar instruments, while also searching for potential biosignatures on the icy surface that would be deposited by plumes ejected into space from Europa’s ocean below.
The dangers and challenges are real
Despite the growth of commercial space activity, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that space travel is still a very risky and expensive game, both for the financial backers of missions as well as for any humans that join them. SpaceX’s recent Starship rocket – the most powerful ever built – recently experienced a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” a few minutes after launch, while the Hakuto-R moon lander, built by a Japanese company called Ispace and carrying a lunar rover developed by the UAE, lost contact with Earth upon touchdown in April. These will surely weigh on the minds of anyone attempting the next big space trip.
Furthermore, future space missions will be evaluated based on resource efficiency and sustainability, and while current breakthroughs in the form of reusable rockets by SpaceX have made the cost of launching rockets into space 10 times cheaper than it was a decade ago, space missions remain highly expensive. To put this into perspective, consider that NASA’s flagship missions cost (in USD) $9.2 billion for the Hubble Space Telescope, $2.5 billion for the Mars Rover, $1.5 billion for the Parker Solar Probe, and $1.3 billion for the Aqua satellite. These are all missions that require continuous monitoring and a significant investment of resources, all of which happen to be government backed. While the private sector has made significant advancements in the aerospace industry, future space missions will still require government oversight and funding in partnership with private companies.
A further difficulty for current and future space missions is the high cost of materials and the time commitment involved in designing, building, and launching a reliable spacecraft to withstand the harsh conditions of space. Resources such as water, oxygen, and fuel will be limited in space. This means that future missions will need to be planned with resource limitations in mind, and new technologies will need to be developed to support long-duration space missions.
Finally, there is the challenge of limiting the amount of space debris. The increasing amount of space debris in Earth’s orbit is a major threat to satellites and other spacecraft. Space missions can only proceed with confidence if measures are taken to reduce and control the effects of space debris.
A glimpse into the future
While commercial space companies continue their aerospace manufacturing, space travel, and exploration efforts, we can expect to see more and more breakthroughs in sustainable aerospace and satellite technology. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, only trained astronauts and the very wealthy will have access to space.
This is perhaps not the glorious future of space travel that our civilization has collectively imagined, if the only ways to get a ticket are through lotteries or wealthy benefactors.
Yet as the industry matures, the twinkling lights in our night sky will gradually seem closer than ever. And someday, perhaps before too long, our planet will be connected to the rest of our solar system. It will also carry on more sustainably than ever, thanks to the private sector’s provision of satellites for communication, agricultural planning, and urban planning. These will provide us with a clear view of our planet, letting us grow faster and build a future that truly inspires us all.