This is a big month for Mars. China, the United Arab Emirates and the United States all sent robotic spacecraft that arrived in recent days to the red planet. Of these, NASA’s Perseverance rover is most ambitious.
But most of the space news these days, at least from the United States, comes out of the private sector. For example, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully deployed 60 internet satellites this month, although the mission lost its reusable booster rocket. Such reusable rockets have helped drive down the cost of lifting satellites, cargo and space-station astronauts.
Those satellites, intended to expand inexpensive global broadband, are developed in Redmond. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is headquartered in Kent. Aerojet Rocketdyne, a rocket maker, has several hundred employees in Redmond. That suburb is also the hub for Amazon’s broadband satellite venture.
Planetary Resources, which aims at asteroid mining, had been headquartered there, too, before being acquired by blockchain venture ConsenSys. Spaceflight, specializing in secondary payloads, is headquartered in Seattle. And the late Paul Allen founded Stratolaunch (formerly Vulcan Aerospace) in Seattle.
So if the space business can’t replace Boeing’s diminishing Commercial Airplanes footprint here, at least the Seattle area is prominent in reaching for “the final frontier.” According to the most recent report from the state Department of Commerce, space exploration in Washington generated 6,200 workers, $65 million in state taxes and an annual payroll of $610 million.
And, of course, the space business benefits from the 1,300 aerospace-related companies in Washington.
If Boeing were still headquartered in Seattle, it would be the biggest player in the assets listed above. Including its United Launch Alliance joint venture with Lockheed Martin, the company is involved in a range of enterprises from supporting the International Space Station to satellites and rockets.
Among Boeing’s most interesting products is the top-secret X-37B, an unmanned, reusable Air Force spacecraft. The government denies that it is a weapon.
The big profit for this burgeoning set of corporate ventures mostly comes from the government (the Pentagon, NASA, etc.) and private satellite companies looking for launchers. As of 2019, the space sector earned $366 billion in revenue. This is expected to climb to $1.1 trillion by 2040.
Bezos hopes to return to the moon and Musk aspires to colonize the moon and Mars. But for now, the real-world money comes from activities in low Earth orbit (telecommunications, national security, Earth observation satellites).
This doesn’t inspire a child of the Space Age such as me.
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin reached low Earth orbit in 1961; John Glenn was the first American there, a year later. I pasted NASA photos on my bedroom wall, collected used NASA Facts films from a local television station, built and launched model rockets in the desert, and on July 21, 1969, watched Neil Armstrong step onto the surface of the moon.
For someone of my age and sensibility (I still have a framed Earthrise photo, taken by Washington resident and Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, on my home-office wall), “2001: A Space Odyssey” wasn’t a science-fiction film but a documentary of the inevitable future. Of course, we would be out in the solar system, even interplanetary space, by the turn of the 21st century.
And it’s not as if the private sector wasn’t involved in the 1960s-‘70s space race. At its peak Project Apollo, the moonshot, involved thousands of contractors and subcontractors. Among the primary players were Boeing, North American Aviation, McDonnell Douglas, Grumman and Rocketdyne. But they were subordinate to NASA. Apollo was done in the national interest.
And yet, with the Soviets beaten to the moon, diminished NASA budgets and no follow-on to the space shuttle, here we are. 2021: Low Earth Orbit.
And anything to come will be primarily dependent on the private sector taking the lead. It will be a major part of NASA’s crewed Artemis program, which aims to return to the moon by 2024.
At least that’s the American model now. China, India and others still see space exploration as a national project.
But according to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), “the commercial space age is here.” The article is accompanied by a clever (or depressing) image of an astronaut standing on the surface of a foreign world holding a flag emblazoned “sale.”
The article is optimistic about the “space-for-space” economy, based on activities such as mining asteroids or the moon. While for now, the big money comes from services produced in space for use down here, “there is reason to think that we may finally be reaching the first stages of a true space-for-space economy,” write HBR’s Matt Weinzierl and Mehak Sarang. “SpaceX’s recent achievements (in cooperation with NASA), as well as upcoming efforts by Boeing, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic to put people in space sustainably and at scale, mark the opening of a new chapter of spaceflight led by private firms.”
The authors are certain that the moves to launch space tourists could eventually lead to space settlement. Thus, “opening the door for businesses to start meeting the demand those people create over the next several decades with an array of space-for-space goods and services.”
I’m sure a place for this exists, at least at the most prosaic level. But anyone who watched science fiction (among the latest being Amazon’s “The Expanse”) knows not to trust the capitalists.
I’m sort of kidding.
But given the damage we’re doing to this world, especially from climate change, we will need to reach out for new ones in the long term. Meaning getting busy now, given the lead times for such ambitious undertakings.
I’m skeptical that market forces alone can meet that need.
Space booms will inevitably lead to space busts. Without visionary billionaires (and perhaps even with them), the bean counters would nix most interplanetary projects, especially missions for exploration and science.
Investors in space ventures will expect returns, just as shareholders in other businesses do, and patience is not in abundance. If other sectors of the economy are a guide, publicly traded space companies will soon emphasize stock buybacks over research and development expenditures.
That’s why NASA and the federal government still need a leading role. The United States’ new Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter drone on Mars are the result of a $2.8 billion federal investment (0.005% of the federal budget over the project’s 10-year time frame). The rover was built by the federal Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
This is happening now, while Bezos and Musk dream and the space industry is stuck 34 million miles behind (at the planets’ closest approach). If Mars is colonized someday, the most realistic scenario is a public-private partnership building on the pioneering work of NASA and other government space agencies.
Even the transcontinental railroad wasn’t built solely by business. Neither will the vessels to go where no person has gone before.