On October 4, 1957 a space race started between Russia and the USA. It then came to an end 18 years later with a handshake in space. That handshake signified the beginning of years of international collaboration in space. However, over the past ten years, a huge change has been witnessed.
Private companies are giving governments a run for their money by joining in the space exploration adventure. Because of them, the sector is moving forward more swiftly and vigorously.
The argument here is that a new space race has started. Private institutions are competing against government institutions and against each other. This new race is different in that, instead of competing to be the first to attain a certain goal, the institutions are competing for customers. So who are the big fish here and how are they going to change the science, politics and technology of space exploration?
If you search for “private space exploration” you will see a ton of links, most of them about private companies involved in space exploration. Many of them, as you will realize, are based in the USA. The most popular ones include SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. These three have one main goal, to make access to space more affordable.
SpaceX has an underway project, BFR, which seeks to transport explorers and cargo to Mars and the moon and also reduce the time it gets to get to space from Earth.
Blue Origin also wants to send people to space. It has different ambitions from that of SpaceX though. Its main target is the space tourism industry. They want to establish commercially available human spaceflight. They already have a vertical launch vehicle, New Shepard, that apparently goes to space and back within 10 minutes.
Virgin Galactic is giving Blue Origin some competition. It refers to itself as “the world’s first commercial spaceline”. Their plan is to transport 6 passengers at a time to sub-orbital space, have them enjoy 6 minutes of weightlessness then bring them back—all in two and a half hours.
Their technology is not the same as that of Blue Origin and SpaceX in that, they launch from a jet airplane instead of launching from the ground.
Powerful International Ties
In past years, the Russia and US space programmes complemented each other in a beautiful design—though not intentionally. Today, other nations like Europe, China, India and Japan have had successful space programmes. All these countries are in competition with one another. China’s space programme is very well developed. It has already had successful missions to the moon, three times.
Even with the competition, successful missions over the past few decades have proven that collaboration in space is possible even when the tension is high on the ground.
Healthy Competition Or Dangerous Game?
The private sector’s entry into space exploration has facilitated the growth of the economy by spurring innovations and reducing launch costs. When investment begins to flow, laws and regulations will be required o govern space exploration. At the moment, the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs is taking care of that.
Hopefully, the enabling factors in this new space race are ingenuity, vision and the betterment of human rather than accumulation of wealth.