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A new privatised space race takes off to the stars?

As funding increases for corporate space projects, the role of national ones change

Photo Credit: Official SpaceX Photos

On Superbowl Sunday, Elon Musk reported a successful test of his new Raptor rocket engine, destined hopefully to launch SpaceX’s future projects such as the Starship spacecraft. It represented yet another success for the company which aims to “revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” 

They are not as far off as you might think. Last year they launched the Falcon Heavy which is the most powerful operational rocket by a factor of two, and is believed to be able to support missions as far as the Moon and Mars. This is not the fist time they have made history, for example, they completed the first ever orbital class rocket landing, where they landed the ‘first stage’ back on land. The private company has since refined this process and successfully landed the ‘first stage’ on drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” after sending the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station only five months later.

But they are not the only company heading for the stars. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic recently welcomed its astronauts home from the company’s first spaceflight. He said: “Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space.” Virgin Galactic aims to send commercial spaceflights so the 600 or so that have already booked – more than have ever currently been to space – will receive as Richard Branson puts it, “an experience which provides a new, planetary perspective to our relationship with the Earth and the cosmos.” 

The third rising key figure for private space travel is Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Though they have taken a slightly different approach to their competitors in the belief that: “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”, which means they intend to take their time to create cheap, reliable and reusable spacecraft. They do not seem to have the record-breaking attitude of their rivals and instead quote “we are not in a race”, and that their goal is only to take part in the technological advancements that will allow the human race to travel out of the atmosphere, and make this journey more accessible.

An older but lesser known player is Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (formerly Orbital ATK), who have been called “the closest thing we’ve got to a privatised version of NASA” by Tech Radar. They have flown many missions with NASA over the years but do not have the public standing of their counterparts without an identifiably famous entrepreneur at the helm.

The funding that these companies receive certainly reflects the intense belief that they will pave the way. SpaceX is said to have operated with an estimated budget of $1 billion during its first ten years. Its contractual obligations represent around $12 billion. Jeff Bezos has revealed he liquidates around $1 billion of Amazon stock a year since 2017 to privately fund Blue Origin, although this only represents a fraction of his estimated net worth which has floated around $132 billion in the past (it varies with Amazon stock price.) Virgin Galactic is said to have been operating with a $600 million budget before 2015. It is funded by the Virgin Group’s other more profitable enterprises but also by Abu Dhabi’s state investment agency, Aabar.

All three have seen their budgets rise over their relatively short lifetimes, whereas NASA has seen its own dwindle and fall in real terms (i.e. accounting for inflation.) As a percentage of the Federal budget, it has gone from over 4 per cent in the late 60s to a meek 0.47 per cent in 2017, where it is estimated to have received just over $19.5 billion. Whereas the European Space Agency, currently (albeit not indefinitely) located in the UK, received €5.72 billion for 2019, most of which came from France, Germany and Italy. ROSCOSMOS, the Russian state corporation for space exploration, received the equivalent of $2.85 billion.

And so, two questions appear pertinent: are we seeing a corporate race to space and, if so, will space travel be privatised completely?

There is definitely an element of time pressure for all three companies to deliver the newest and best equipment but each seems to focus on their own ends, so it is not comparable to the Space Race waged between the Cold War rivals. As for complete privatisation, eventually perhaps; after all, Elon Musk has every intention of colonising Mars while Richard Branson wants to sell commercial space exploration. But, there is still some way to go before that becomes a reality and many of the flights undertaken by these companies have been under NASA outsourcing contracts. Nor is either company ready to take untrained passengers into the harshest environment there is. Then again, this reporter sees the appeal of neither goal and so remains sceptic of the amount of money that flows into these projects, which could be better used on our little blue planet.

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