One small step for man and one giant leap for the commercial space industry.
The successful takeoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on 30 May, marked a new era in human spaceflight, as NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley launched the Demo-2 mission from the Kennedy Space Centre to the International Space Station (ISS).
“SpaceX, we’re going for launch. Let’s light this candle,” said Hurley just before lift-off, paraphrasing the famous remark made in 1961 by Alan Shepard, the first American flown into space.
24 hours later, the astronauts were delivered to the ISS, where they will remain for circa three months.
The launch of SpaceX, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company, was the first time that commercially-developed space vehicles – owned and operated by a private entity rather than NASA – have transported humans into orbit.
The most recent mission, paid by NASA, is expected to kick off the next major phase in the privatisation of space, which has until now focused on satellite launches.
Future plans include the launch of private astronauts, private space stations, and even private extraterrestrial missions.
But with this new territory also comes a host of new challenges, including the politicisation of space.
Revolutionising commercial space travel
The motivation behind NASA’s contract with SpaceX was the price tag.
In comparison, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is $60-67 million per seat. It’s $2,720 to send a kilogram of cargo into space on the Falcon rocket, as opposed to $54,500. And while the space shuttle cost $27.4 billion to build, the Crew Dragon was designed for $1.7 billion.
Boeing, who is producing its own launch system, is expected to fly its Starliner capsule with NASA crew onboard next year.
NASA had awarded nearly $8 billion combined to SpaceX and Boeing for the development of their rival rockets.
Included in this new commercial space frontier, are legacy aerospace firms like Orbital ATK and United Launch Alliance, and innovative startups like Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit.
Flexing its innovative muscle, SpaceX developed the first space vehicle with touch-screen controls, a reusable rocket that can take off as well as land, and the first capsule that can fly autonomously from launch to docking without human participation.
“We have begun an exciting new chapter where NASA can now focus on deep space,” said Scott Hubbard, a professor at Stanford and former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center. “The more routine up and down to low Earth orbit can be purchased a bit like an airline ticket.”
The first phase of the private space race has eagerly commenced.
Texas-based startup, Axiom Space, has contracted with SpaceX to send four astronauts on commercial missions by 2021. NASA also awarded Axiom a contract to build a private module to the ISS for exploring commercial applications in low gravity.
Private space stations are now being considered, as NASA might not have the desire nor the funding to replace the ISS once it reaches the end of its working life.
Space Adventures, another startup, has inked a deal with SpaceX to foster orbital tourism by 2022.
And Musk has his sights set beyond the Earth’s orbit as well.
SpaceX is working on a larger version of the Falcon 9 reusable rocket, Super Heavy, which aims to carry a deep-space capsule capable of up to 100 people to the moon and eventually to Mars.
Hurdles still ahead
The push to privatise space is not without its problems.
The history of private space ventures has been littered with casualties and failures.
The advent of private activity will exacerbate space debris pollution, much like how private commercial maritime activity has polluted the seas.
As the number of space objects increase, it’s fair to assume the risk of serious accidents will too.
Every year, some 100-150 tonnes of human-made space objects re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. A rise in that number would only raise the likelihood of inadvertent damage to property, or in the worst case, human life.
The costs involved in engaging in space station activities are also extraordinarily high, and developing countries increasingly use commercial resources. But if any damage is caused in space due to negligence by the private launcher, the state would still end up being liable.
An antiquated regime of space law has not accounted for the rise of private exploration either. The patchwork of agreements and treaties that govern space, will need to be redefined to regulate new challenges like space mining and space pollution.
Concerning astronaut safety, it’s unclear whether the legal right to a safe existence in outer space will also apply to private astronauts. And will a private company foot the bill if a rescue mission is required?
Geopolitics of space
In the lead up to SpaceX’s launch, there was also an undercurrent of national pride embodied in the #LaunchAmerica hashtag.
President Trump said that “the United States has regained our place of prestige as the world leader” in space travel.
“We once again proudly launch American astronauts on American rockets – the best in the world – from right here on American soil,” he added.
The “prestige” Trump mentions could be tied to his push for space hegemony.
By freeing the US from dependence on Russian spacecraft, the US military can commit more resources to its newest division – the Space Force – which was formally created as part of the administration’s $738 billion defence budget, with $15.4 billion apportioned to it for 2021.
From the start, the Space Force has been linked to war preparations against Russia and China.
As the Washington Post reported, the rockets developed by SpaceX will expand the Pentagon’s “launch market”, allowing for new rockets to be repurposed into new missiles.
The process of formally recognising the property rights of private interests to claim resources in space has already begun.
In April, Trump signed an executive order which declared that “the United States does not view it [space] as a global commons,” and that “successful long-term exploration…will require partnership with commercial entities to recover and use resources”.
By doing so, Trump’s political calculations overlap with Musk’s private interests – and SpaceX’s plans for extraterrestrial travel and colonisation.