It’s hardly the Rebel Alliance versus the Galactic Empire. Yet an assortment of start-up space companies may be loosening the grip that NASA, the nation’s space agency, and its giant contractors have had on the aerospace industry for more than 50 years. This so-called commercialization of space is attracting the attention of investors and rocket enthusiasts alike.
These long-term NASA contractors have put their stamp on virtually every major accomplishment off planet Earth. They constructed the Saturn rockets that took Americans to the moon. They assembled NASA’s space shuttle fleet and supplied sections of the International Space Station (ISS). They continue to build communication satellites and space telescopes. Even so, these behemoths are now facing a small yet rising wave of competition from “rebels” of sorts, start-up companies that were founded and are owned, in more than a few cases, by wealthy entrepreneurs who often are focused on keeping down costs.
Calling All Nations of Earth
The United States and Russia, and to a lesser extent the European Space Agency, have long been the main players in Earth’s orbit. But recently, more nations appear to have been bitten by the space bug. The U.S. aerospace industry, including the start-ups, could benefit if foreign space agencies turn to American companies for parts or services.
In December 2013, China landed a spacecraft on the moon and began piloting a rover, the Jade Rabbit, across the lunar surface.
In December 2013, a group of African nations announced the formation of a space agency to launch satellites that could help search for water aquifers and improve cellular phone service across the continent.
In November 2013, India launched an orbiter that will detect and measure gases in the atmosphere of Mars.
Iran claims it rocketed a monkey into space and safely returned it to Earth in 2013 — not once but twice.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently revealed plans for a fully UAE-manufactured satellite, to be launched in 2017.
The embattled government of Syria, three years after the start of the country’s civil war, in March 2014 announced the formation of a national space agency.
A line in Space
Though small manufacturers have supplied parts to the aerospace industry for decades, this new crop appears to have bigger plans: They’ve been designing, testing and launching spacecraft of their own, with some hoping to realize the heavens as the ultimate tourist destination. Many have conducted flight trials at or close to the Karman line, the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. But a few, including two companies recently hired by NASA to ferry supplies to the ISS, have already soared into the final frontier.
Equally newsworthy may be how these smaller companies have been redefining the “right stuff” of earlier eras in ways that seem to better reflect our socially networked, crowdsourced times. For example:
- At least one company is offering to send ordinary citizens into a low Earth orbit for a fee, with the first trip televised on a network morning TV show.
- One organization says it is planning a voyage to Mars, with the trip funded in part by crowdsourcing and documented on a reality TV show. Crew member hopefuls can apply on the company’s website.
- A household name in Internet search engines is offering millions of dollars in prize money to the first private company to land a robot on the moon and remote-pilot it 500 meters by the end of 2015.
- Under contract with NASA, two companies, one public, the other private, recently transported supplies to the ISS in unmanned spacecraft they built and launched — a first for both.
- Two start-ups, both privately owned by Internet billionaires, recently vied for control of the storied launchpad 39A, part of the Kennedy Space Center complex used for Apollo and space shuttle launches. They documented their negotiations in online press reports.
In short, what was once a virtual monopoly, with NASA at its center, is now looking more like a free market — perhaps even a free-for-all — with many participants eyeing the bottom line as much as the Karman line.
Seeking the Origin
This recalibration of the U.S. aerospace industry is the result, at least in part, of a few significant factors.
- The Internet era has created many very wealthy individuals. In the last decade or so, a number of them have founded privately held space-exploration companies.
- After the financial crisis of 2008, government funding for certain NASA projects was put in jeopardy.
- President Obama announced in 2010 that NASA would rely on “a growing array of private companies to make getting into space easier and more affordable.”
- NASA’s fleet of space shuttles, the workhorses of U.S. space exploration, was retired, and its planned replacement program, Constellation, shelved, in the agency’s 2011 fiscal year.
- These budget changes left NASA with no means to deliver supplies to the ISS except via Russian spacecraft.
For more on the commercialization of space, check out Joe Quinlan's article “Investing in Space Travel.”
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