Of all the great American industrial undertakings of the 20th century, the most high-minded and romantic was the Apollo project. Americans first flew in space in May 1961, and, just over eight years later, they stood on the surface of another celestial body — a mind-boggling achievement.
The American public was introduced to space as a tangible thing when astronauts were walking on the moon every few months, or NASA was captivating the imagination with the space shuttle, which promised to usher in an era of routine space exploration. Americans went to space in vehicles called Eagle, Discovery, and Endeavour, and talked about coming in peace for all mankind. Heady stuff.
Of course, the catalyst for space exploration was not strictly scientific or humanitarian; it was also a show of technological ingenuity and industrial strength meant to keep the Soviet Union on its heels. After all, the rockets that first sent Americans into space started out as ballistic missiles, originally meant to send nuclear warheads to Moscow. The space race, like the Cold War, was an ideological battle between communism and democracy — or, more accurately, capitalism.
On December 11, President Donald Trump announced his intention to send American astronauts back to the moon and establish a permanent presence in orbit, before moving on to Mars, shifting from the Mars-centered vision President Obama laid out a year ago. It’s now been 45 years since someone last set foot on the moon, and a new age of spaceflight is underway, while capitalism has a larger say in space than ever.
Where spaceflight in the 20th century was defined by heroic exploration, science, and national pride, the 21st century has seen an unprecedented rise in private spaceflight investment, from a combination of traditional defense contractors and Silicon Valley–backed startups. A company called Moon Express, backed by investors including Peter Thiel, received permission to send a craft to land on the moon, with the eventual goal of building a mining colony. SpaceX, meanwhile, is eyeing Mars.
Going to space just for the sake of going there, or running some science experiments, is reason enough for a government to invest in space exploration. For-profit corporations go to space, well, for profit, and as disastrous as unchecked capitalism has been for workers and the environment on Earth, imagine what kind of unregulated dystopia corporate-owned space could become. Is the government still ensuring that American spaceflight is a humanitarian enterprise, or are we heading toward a future as bleak and hostile as the surface of the moon itself?
The short-term reality is a little more mundane. The only special thing about commercial spaceflight nowadays is that, at least in NASA’s dealings with private companies, capitalism is working as advertised. Competition is sparking innovation and keeping costs down.
When those astronauts go to the moon, they’ll travel in a spacecraft called Orion, an Apollo-style capsule built by Lockheed Martin and Airbus, but owned and operated by NASA. But Orion won’t be ready for at least another five years, and it won’t service the International Space Station, NASA’s only current crewed mission. Since the last shuttle flight, NASA astronauts have hitched a ride on Russian Soyuz rockets to and from the ISS, but starting in 2019, they’ll be flying commercial.
For the first time, two private companies — Boeing and SpaceX — will own and operate the vehicles sending American astronauts into orbit. It’s part of a growing movement to privatize spaceflight. When SpaceX is leasing out Launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center — the launchpad where every crewed mission to lunar surface, plus the first shuttle mission, started — it looks like a significant shift away from government interest in human exploration of space.
Turns out it isn’t that dramatic.
“You can think of it as a difference in ultimate financial responsibility,” said Casey Dreier, director of space policy at the Planetary Society, a nonprofit group that advocates for space exploration. “It’s like the post office instead of UPS — instead of owning the infrastructure and facilities, and owning the vehicles themselves, NASA is paying for a service. For the International Space Station, they’ve been doing this for the past few years for cargo, and they’ll be doing it soon with humans: NASA is buying a ticket and then the companies guarantee transit and deliver.”
Contracting out ISS delivery insulates NASA from cost overruns — if a vehicle takes longer to build or goes over budget, the company makes it up out of its own coffers. That represents a departure from the traditional contractor model, which has resulted in just that — delays and cost overruns — for the Department of Defense. That’s also why NASA made a point to select not just one capsule design but one from Boeing and one from SpaceX: Capitalism promises increased innovation and lower costs through competition, but in order for that to happen, there has to be, in so many words, competition.
Private companies have been taking care of the American end of supply runs to the ISS for the past five years, generating a burgeoning industry that now includes several contractors. SpaceX, the splashiest of the group, was founded 15 years ago by Musk with civilian and commercial spaceflight in mind, and furnishes both the spacecraft, the Dragon, and the rocket (known as the Falcon) that sends it to orbit. Orbital ATK is the result of a 2015 merger between Orbital Sciences Corporation, which has been building rockets and satellites since the 1980s, and defense contractor Alliant Techsystems. Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft has been launched to the ISS from both Antares rockets, built by Orbital ATK itself, and Atlas rockets, built by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Sierra Nevada, another defense contractor with a 50-year history, will also send its planelike Dream Chaser into orbit on Atlas rockets.
Commercial resupply services missions have guaranteed at least one reliable and lucrative customer — NASA — for a variety of companies, from newcomers like SpaceX, to aerospace giants, like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which have diverse products and a lineage that dates back to the first years of powered flight.
Multiple private companies are making enough money to not only enter a market with high barriers to entry, but to make enough money to want to stay there, while NASA enjoys lower costs and offloads some of the logistical burden, and at the same time sparking a burgeoning industry that creates high-paying jobs in the United States. Which raises an obvious question: Why did we ever do it any other way?
“For these big military or aerospace contracts, generally the government is asking some subset of industries to make something that has never been made before, and no one knows how to make it,” Dreier said. “What company would say, ‘We will build the largest rocket ever and send it to the moon, having no idea how to begin with the materials, and we’ll assume all of that risk. And if we go over budget, then we go out of business and you no longer have a company to work on this rocket, and you have to start over’?”
Nowadays, Dreier says, low-earth-orbit flights like satellite launches and ISS resupply missions are known quantities, so companies know what they can promise NASA and still meet deadlines and budget expectations. And while they’d probably prefer a blank check and a practically unlimited timeline, NASA is using its own leverage to demand a better deal. Public investment in spaceflight still grossly outstrips private money, so even the limited commercial resupply services missions — six in 2017 — are significant financial opportunities for a contractor.
And the benefits extend beyond the CRS contracts. SpaceX, for instance, developed the Falcon 9 rocket not just for CRS missions but for commercial satellite launches — most notably communications satellites — and is adapting its technology for crewed missions. Transporting people into orbit isn’t exactly the same as transporting cargo — NASA requires greater reliability, because while losing a satellite is an expensive failure, losing a crew is an international tragedy — but the overlap between the two is obvious. NASA also requires CRS contractors to attract private investment, which is easier to get when the company has steady government work to show off.
Because these flights are routine, and aren’t on the bleeding edge of exploration, NASA can pass them off to contractors without losing face. Most of the friction involved in the privatization of spaceflight exists solely within NASA, Dreier said, specifically the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, where the tradition of rocket design dates back to Wernher Von Braun.
“[Marshall’s] heritage is, ‘We build big rockets for NASA,’” Dreier said. “And so when President Obama proposed to cancel the previous moon project in 2010, the rocket development was being led out of Marshall, and they were very upset when the proposal was, ‘Let’s just shift it all to commercial.’ The primary factor was politics, but it was also self-identity.”
But from an international standpoint, there’s no loss of prestige for NASA, which often stands in as a metonym for the American spaceflight industry as a whole. Rocket launches are only a part of NASA’s mission, and NASA, the largest space agency in the world, represents only a part of the American investment in space — the military has its own space program, for instance, separate from its civilian counterpart. So the success of American private industry reflects back on the government agency it partners with.
“For the rest of the world, they look at the United States and go, ‘Holy crap, look at the U.S. industrial base, which had multiple private space companies pop up out of nowhere,’” Dreier said. “That is a sign of a very healthy aerospace industry and workforce.”
Just as the future of human spaceflight doesn’t stop at the ISS, neither does the future of for-profit spaceflight, and the further into the future you go, the less clear the picture becomes. Even as spaceflight becomes cheaper and more routine, worldwide demand is still a fraction of commercial Earth air travel or shipping.
“You’re talking about maybe 130 launches per year, total, from every country in the world. Half of those you can take right out of competition, because Russians are going to launch on Russian rockets, Europeans are going to launch on European rockets, Indians are going to launch on Indian rockets,” Dreier said. “SpaceX is cut out of those, so they can only ever top out at 60 or 70 launches per year, if they win everything, unless something fundamentally different happens to the marketplace, that there’s a huge growth in the number of things that need to be sent into space.”
There are, however, ways to increase the number of launches. First of all, as commercial satellite launches on reusable rockets become more routine, costs will come down, perhaps opening up the satellite market without changing the paradigm whatsoever. Second, NASA still spends more money on spaceflight than any private customer, and as NASA’s missions grow, so, too, will that of contractors that serve the government well. Dreier says SpaceX’s interest in the moon, including a planned lunar flyby for two private customers, is sparked in part by the Trump administration’s renewed interest in lunar spaceflight.
But SpaceX is also floating a few creative ideas, such as an armada of satellites that could provide global broadband internet connectivity. There’s also the possibility of using suborbital rockets for rapid passenger and cargo transport, though SpaceX has to work out some kinks before it’s anywhere near safe enough. And if transportation costs decrease enough, it could become feasible to mine the moon or asteroids.
If there’s a profit to be made in space, the companies bidding for NASA’s business now will find it in the coming decades. And therein lies the real conflict of the privatization of spaceflight.
When talking about SpaceX’s plans or vision, the company itself is a metonym for its founder, Musk, the billionaire software impresario who’s spent the past 15 years reinvesting his massive wealth into flashy transportation projects. In addition to SpaceX, he’s the CEO of electric car manufacturer Tesla and, more recently, the tunnel-making firm the Boring Company. Musk is, depending on what you think of him, either a real-life Howard Stark or a real-life Bond villain, but either way, he’s nothing if not ambitious.
That ambition serves SpaceX well — Musk’s singular vision offers a planning advantage over NASA, which has to work with congressional oversight and a fluid agenda. But it also raises the question of what that ambition serves.
Musk’s alleged treatment of his employees, from the firing of Tesla employees for trying to start a union to the bizarre firing of his assistant in 2014, raises questions about, first, what it would be like for people who live in space and work for Musk or someone like him, and, second, the humanitarian considerations of deep-space enterprise.
Preventing abuses in the name of profit is traditionally the province of the government, and the United States does regulate spaceflight. NASA, while not a regulatory body, has safety and reliability standards for its contractors, while the FAA’s Office of Commercial Spaceflight regulates commercial launches within the United States, and has for more than 30 years.
But once you get up there, regulating space becomes a diplomatic concern. The United Nations’ 1967 Outer Space Treaty prevents nations and private entities from claiming territory on the moon or other celestial bodies, but does not deal with issues of mineral rights or even human rights. In 1970, a new treaty was introduced that declared space “the common heritage of mankind,” but that treaty was signed by only a few countries and ultimately not supported by the United States at the urging of American business groups. Short of a UN treaty banning celestial resource extraction altogether, it’s difficult to imagine how one might regulate the mining of precious metals or helium-3 (an isotope with applications for fusion power, thought to exist in abundance on the moon), because those regulations would have to be reactive in nature.
That assumes that such regulations will even come into being. There’s not a one-to-one relationship between the White House’s agenda and interests and the agenda and interests of NASA or FAA, but the Trump administration’s interest in the moon suggests that there are economic motivations. Such is life under a businessman president.
The limits of regulatory authority leave space open for the taking, and without regulatory interference, the profits could be immense. As shallow a goal as national pride was back in the 1960s, it looks downright moralistic compared to the impulse to go back to the moon now.
“There is a subtle shift, and you’re already seeing that in how people are talking about how people are talking about the moon this time around,” Dreier said. “It’s definitely being driven by this growing capability, presence, and awareness of private space companies. What are we going to the moon for, to mine it? Is NASA going to help invest in the moon so we can make a mining colony, and that’s the pinnacle of human exploration, just doing resource extraction on another celestial body?”
That, Dreier says, is why NASA needs to maintain a strong presence in all aspects of space exploration: To help steer the agenda to something even remotely humanitarian.
“There’s a lot of good things that can come out of an extension of getting private capital into space,” Dreier said. “But it’s crucial that we don’t wash our hands and say we don’t need NASA anymore. The public side of it becomes all the more critical — to represent the values of the [country], to continue to do things the private sector’s not meant to do, and to continue to invest in the scientific exploration of our cosmos.”
Once commercial spaceflight leaves Earth’s orbit, humanity, for the first time, will need to come up with a clear vision for who benefits from that exploration and how. In other words, will space exploration continue to be a scientific and humanitarian undertaking, or will it become just another crack for capitalism to slide into? The answer, fittingly enough for space exploration, will remain unknown until we get there and explore.