Welcome to the new space race

From commercial rocket launches to mining asteroids, billionaires are looking to make money from the stars

When Russian pilot Yuri Gagarin was launched into space in 1961, he became the first human to ever venture outside the confines of our planet – not to mention an overnight celebrity complete with international accolades, national honours and a mistress named Anna (also his nurse, FYI).

Back in the 1960s, the space race was a secretive competition between nation-states. But fast forward 55 years and the space sector is no longer driven by governments and national agencies alone. In the 21st century, entrepreneurs and private companies are getting in on the action when it comes to planetary exploration, human spaceflight, reusable rockets and asteroid mining. This is the Space Race 2.0.

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Crew aboard the ISS are treated to this view 16 times a day (Image: NASA)

Over the Moon

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is still the most experienced and influential player in the space game. Founded in 1958 with the aim of “reaching new heights and revealing the unknown for the benefit of humankind”, the agency is best known for its moon landings and space shuttle missions. In recent years, its ambitions for Mars have been causing the biggest stir. By 2025, NASA hopes to put humans on asteroids, and by the 2030s, it’s aiming to land them on Mars.

“You’ve likely heard the next stages of space exploration are focused on moving humanity beyond Earth orbit with a goal of Mars,” says Stephanie L. Schierholz, NASA’s Press Secretary. “Human arrival on Mars is still decades away [at this point], but we’re continuing to explore and understand the planet with our robotic explorers.”

mars mission

(Image: NASA)

“An important part of leaving Earth is the work we’re doing on the International Space Station. We have crews living and working on the space station constantly to inform our understanding of the human body in space and test technologies we’ll need as we advance further,” she explains.

A unique example of such technologies is NASA’s Veggie experiment which aims to “provide the crew with a palatable, nutritious, and safe source of fresh food and a tool to support relaxation and recreation”. Put more simply, they’re growing salad in space gardens for fun. Which is actually pretty awesome when you remember there’s no gravity or natural light for those leafy specimens to enjoy up there.

Interplanetary partnerships

Several of NASA’s projects couldn’t get off the ground – literally – without collaboration with businesses and commercial partnerships. One of the most innovative private companies operating in the arena is SpaceX, founded by millionaire Elon Musk - founder of PayPal and CEO of electric car giant Tesla Motors.

Created to advance rocket technology and turn humanity into a space-faring civilisation, SpaceX has already made significant leaps towards those goals. Its rockets are able to return to their launch site and be ready for their next journey within hours, allowing Musk’s team to reduced the cost of building a rocket by 75 per cent compared to those NASA was putting in the skies.

falcon9

But SpaceX isn’t the only commercial company looking to make profit from space, and Musk isn’t the only millionaire businessman with intergalactic ambitions. In fact, the competition between private space companies has been heating up over past year.

The key player in this high-stakes race to the stars is Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos with his engineering firm Blue Origin, which like SpaceX is busy designing next-generation rockets, these ones for human spaceflight. Despite leaving the earth’s atmosphere, Blue Origin’s rockets have yet to make it into orbit, though their advertised goal is to propel humans into space by as soon as 2018.

Needless to say, the two space entrepreneurs aren’t exactly friends. Bezos’ Blue Origin beat Musk and SpaceX to the punch by becoming the first commercial space company to successfully land and reuse a rocket last November. This resulted in a hilarious Twitter feud where Musk used advanced physics to explain the superiority of his rocket, all within the restrictions of 140-character bursts.

A month later, when SpaceX successfully re-landed its own Falcon 9 rocket for the first time, Bezos offered a snarky digital congratulations, tweeting the message “Welcome to the club!” at his competitor. The race to perfect the world’s first reusable rocket is certainly on, and the millionaires looking to profit aren’t pulling any punches. 

Sped up footage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket first-stage landing on a sea platform

Think that looks easy? Try it for yourself… it’s literally rocket science.

The main difference between SpaceX’s latest Falcon 9 rocket, and Blue Origin’s New Shepard space vehicle is the intended purpose of each. SpaceX is primarily working on tall, slender rockets to be used for cargo, whereas Blue Origins is developing shorter, fatter suborbital rockets designed to send people into space for a few minutes at a time. Nevertheless, both are aiming to be the first and the best every step of the way – because success equals cash in the space game, however you measure it.

The New Shepard of Blue Origin records another successful test flight

The grand ambitions of both companies are linked to the ever-decreasing costs of space exploration. As well as the cost of rocket technology reducing significantly in recent years, there’s a burgeoning new startup sector around cubesats – satellites that are around the size of eight rubix cubes stuck together and can be built from materials available at your local DIY store.

We’ve now got a country saying that actually, legally, you can go and mine an asteroid

“The cheap cost of building and launching cubesats means that the economics of space changes. Services delivered by cubesats can be a lot cheaper than from standard satellites, which means it opens up the market to a much larger group,” says Craig Brown, Lead Space Technologist at Innovate UK, a UK government initiative that hopes to grow the space sector to a value of £40bn by 2030 with the help of private companies.

“By 2020, it’s expected that nanosatellite manufacturing will be worth £100m a year and services based on earth observation data from cubesats will be worth nearly £1bn a year. New space applications have the potential to be very lucrative for businesses,” Brown adds.

In her recent speech to Parliament, the Queen announced plans to establish the UK’s first commercial spaceport by the end of this parliament, which will provide a launchpad for satellites – including cubesats – from private companies as well as, it’s hoped, some of the world’s first space tourists.

The final (legal) frontier

The entry of commercial companies into the space race has resulted in some mind-boggling developments, particularly in the fast-growing area of space law. Dr. Christopher Newman, a professor at the University of Sunderland, is an expert in the sector. Yep, he gets to tell people he’s a space lawyer – a title he says will become much more mainstream in the years to come, inevitably followed by space accountants, space HR and space estate agents. 

“Where there’s an expansion in space activity, there’s the need for a legal regulatory framework to go alongside. That’s where us lawyers come in,” he explains. “Essentially, we’re looking at the rules we have in place here on earth — property rights, health and safety — and seeing if those can apply to outer space.”

The Outer Space Treaty, agreed back in 1967, states that no company or person can own a part of outer space. But in November 2015, Barack Obama signed a new act that encourages businesses to explore and utilise asteroid resources, and recognises the right of American citizens to own those resources.

“We’ve now got a country saying that actually, legally, you can go and mine an asteroid and then use and sell those resources and minerals on earth,” Newman explains. “You’re not claiming that you own the asteroid, you’re mining it and using it and selling the profits on. This causes a bit of a problem, because if you’re mining and taking minerals out of an asteroid, you’re effectively operating as if you own it anyway.”

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The Philae lander of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission is safely on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Image: ESA)

NASA is already attempting to redirect an asteroid into orbit around the moon in order to mine materials from it. This would involve both humans and robots working together to collect samples, as well as a new solar-powered propulsion system that could later be used to reach Mars. So Obama’s new act has come just in time to ensure the US stays on the right side of the law in its space pursuits (which is to say, they’ve made a law that lets them do what they fancy, at least until someone tells them to stop).

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NASA concept art by Denise Watt, envisaging the capture of an asteroid (Image: NASA)

Europe isn’t far behind in redefining the boundaries of intergalactic law. Earlier this year, Luxembourg’s government announced an initiative to encourage European asteroid mining, and set itself the task of establishing a legal framework to define ownership of asteroid resources. It seems safe to assume that Luxembourg won’t be the one pointing out that “exploiting” an asteroid is pretty much “owning” an asteroid to the US.

“Space law is going to develop as the technology develops. As lawyers, we really want this to go before a court to test how robust the current legal understanding is. It’s a lot of guesswork right now, an area of real legal uncertainty until it’s tested,” Newman adds.

As the cost of launching rockets and satellites into the stratosphere continues its rapid decline, we can be sure that interplanetary exploration is only going to become more mainstream. From spaceman salads and intergalactic court rulings to meteor fracking, the technologies used may be the stuff of sci-fi, but they’ll certainly be making a lot of money, even for those suckers stuck on this terrestrial rock.