By 1962, the first space race was already underway. The Soviet Union had sent the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into outer space. America’s Alan Shepard followed soon after into suborbital space.
Then, with instantly iconic remarks, President John F. Kennedy upped the ante: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
With this bold goal, Kennedy put forward an ambitious vision for America’s leadership in space and sparked a new era of innovation.
Sixty years later, a new space race is underway. And this time, more players than ever have set their sights on daring goals — from launching a space tourism sector and colonizing Mars, to taking humans beyond the bounds of the solar system.
“I think that sense of boldness is coming back,” Patricia Cooper, founder of the space consultancy firm Constellation Advisory, said in a recent online symposium hosted by the Space Foundation. “We’ve gotten back the sense of trying very hard things, and maybe failing but picking ourselves up again, and continuing to drive forward.”
The new space race involves, in some ways, higher stakes. There’s more money on the table, we’re sending ‘tourists’ without professional training into space, and we’re sending astronauts and spacecraft further than ever before.
With that comes greater potential. To understand the scope of the current space race — and why it matters to everyone — it’s worth first considering the resounding impact of the world’s first generation of space pioneers. While only hundreds of humans have been to space, the technology created to support space exploration has had a huge impact on everyday life. Take, for instance, the development of GPS — the first global navigation satellite system.
“GPS is about a $300 billion per year business here on Earth, and since its inception it’s estimated to have generated $1.4 trillion in the US alone,” Lockheed Martin’s Lisa Callahan noted on a recent podcast. Callahan is Lockheed’s VP and GM of commercial civil space.
“Just look at the rideshare industry, which is a $60 billion business annually, and all thanks to space assets providing those GPS signals,” she continued. “Weather is very similar, with the US weather satellite market worth $162 billion a year, with space assets totaling about 77 percent of that. So space is really playing a huge role in the economy here on Earth.”
While the satellite industry and other space-based sectors directly impact life here on Earth, space exploration has influenced humanity in countless ways — culturally, economically, scientifically and technologically. Space-related innovations have led to advances in materials, medicine, computing, batteries, miniaturization and a whole host of other areas.
While the space race of the 1960s inspired bold action and serious risk-taking, “there were a couple decades that followed where the goal was to take that danger out of the space sector,” Cooper said. “To make it feel more accessible, less risky for those that were funding it and watching it.”
Space: the comeback
After a few sleepy decades, space is making a comeback. In the first half of 2022, 72 rocket launches took 1,022 spacecraft into orbit — that’s more spacecraft in orbit than were launched in the first 52 years of the Space Age, according to the Space Foundation. Meanwhile, the global space economy hit $469 billion in 2021, growing at a brisk 9% clip from 2020.
This decade’s space race was sparked, in part, by ambitious new NASA programs, launched after years of preparation.
For instance, after launching the James Webb Space Telescope on Christmas Day 2021, NASA and its partners earlier this year released the telescope’s first full-color images. A true feat of science and engineering, the Webb telescope gave us an unprecedented glimpse into cosmic history — images of stars forming and dying, of water vapor on planets more than 1,000 light-years away.
Meanwhile, NASA just last month launched Artemis, a mission that aims to send the first woman and the first person of color to the moon — and ultimately prepare mankind for a journey to Mars. While NASA is leading the mission, the US has mobilized its government partners around the globe, as well as a number of private sector partners, to develop new technologies for the program — like modern spacesuits, orbital outposts and new communications systems.
Besides giving humanity an exciting new moon mission to root for, the Artemis program has delivered a clear signal that the new Space Era is here. While the Biden administration launched the first phase of the Artemis mission, the program started during the Trump administration. That degree of continuity from one administration to the next matters, space experts agree.
The United States’ renewed commitment to space should also be clear from its budget. The US last year increased its budget on military and civil space programs by 18%, the Space Foundation reported. Other governments have made similar moves — China increased its space spending by an estimated 23%, while India’s spending grew 36%.
What’s more remarkable in this new Space Era is the involvement of the private sector. A new crop of leading space businesses has emerged, thanks billionaire businessmen seeking lasting legacies.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has transformed the satellite industry and developed groundbreaking, reusable rockets. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is one of the principal partners leading the development of the ‘Orbital Reef’ — a commercially owned and operated space station that, by the end of the decade, aims to provide accommodations for business, research and space tourism. Then there’s Virgin Galactic, founded by Richard Branson, which is developing a commercial spaceflight business that will carry well-heeled customers on a 90-minute journey to micro-gravity and back. The company says its commercial missions are expected to start in the first quarter of 2023.
Meanwhile, VC firms and risk-tolerant investors are funding a bold batch of space startups. While investment in the sector took a hit like most of the economy this year, that followed a record-setting 2021. Startup space companies raised $15.4 billion in total financing in last year, double the amount raised in 2020.
Private investment, said Cooper, “allows a little bit more risk taking than playing with the public’s money, and that’s another great benefit of these last revolutionary years. That is true of today’s satellite industry, it’s true of today’s launch industry, and it’s going to be a factor going forward.”
At this rate, the global space industry could very well become a $1 trillion market by 2040, according to analysts at Morgan Stanley.
The new space economy will also require innovative contributions from our existing commercial leaders.
“Non-aerospace industries are going to become space companies, whether they know it or not,” said Lockheed Martin’s Callahan. “For example, we’re partnering with General Motors to build a lunar rover, leveraging their expertise in autonomous vehicles and their battery technology as they electrify their fleet. And taking those innovations here on Earth and bringing them into the space market is something that really gives me a lot of energy and excitement. GM is not a space company, but they are going to participate in the space economy.”
Lockheed Martin has also partnered with Amazon and Cisco to bring everyday tools like Webex and Alexa to space. The three companies deployed Callisto, a tech demonstration payload, on board NASA’sArtemis I mission. Callisto includes technology that allows Alexa to work without an internet connection, as well as a demo of Webex running on NASA’s Deep Space Network.
While the new space economy is in its nascent stages, we already have an idea of some of the innovations it will spur. For instance, 3D printing and additive manufacturing will be critical for building infrastructure in space. As the Space Foundation notes, 3D printing may also be combined with advancements in biotechnologies to create supplies like ‘biobandages’ for astronauts. Robots and autonomous tools will be necessary to search for and gather resources in space.
Meanwhile, NASA and its partners have been exploring potential propulsion technologies that could help humans go farther into space than ever before — including two types of nuclear propulsion systems: nuclear electric and nuclear thermal propulsion.
While there’s plenty to look forward to from the new space race and the new space economy, they also come with massive challenges. A major one is the growing likelihood of conflict in space, noted Carissa Christensen, CEO and founder of BryceTech, an analytics and engineering firm that serves the space industry.
“Thinking about Russia’s and China’s roles in space, and their increasing cooperation with one another, is a critical topic for this administration,” Christensen said in the symposium hosted by the Space Foundation.
“I do think we as a nation need to think about how we can use space activities in some limited way to build relationships with Russia and China,” she continued, while “being mindful of the risks of technology transfer and strengthening adversaries.”
Meanwhile, a growing space economy means space will literally be more crowded. While space may be infinite, the areas in which mankind operates are not. The huge number of satellites launching into space creates an increased risk for collisions. A collision could have catastrophic effects, given our growing dependence on satellite-based services, as well as the potential for space debris to crash down on Earth.
Then, of course, as we set our sights on the next century of space exploration, humanity will be challenged to push innovation to its limits.
“Things that are going to be transformational and important for our country, things that are critical for who we are as a nation, are not easy,” said former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “They’re necessary and worth doing.”