The excitement about human space exploration keeps growing.
It’s driven by new commercial players, new demands on communications networks, new countries getting in on the game, a thirst for resources, and an ever-expanding scientific and humanitarian community that needs space data to observe our planet.
Welcome to “new space”
Nothing’s ever that new. But scientists and engineers, politicians and industry do speak of a new space era, sometimes “Space 4.0.”
It’s a mantra, a call-to-action, like an advertising slogan.
And all it means is that human space exploration is going from go… to “go faster!”
New commercial interests
Government agencies have long worked with commercial companies in space technology.
Agencies like NASA in the USA, the European Space Agency (22 nations), JAXA in Japan and Russia’s Roscosmos.
In fact, the Apollo 11 lunar module — the thing that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon — that was built by the Grumman Corporation in New York.
Only, back then, Grumman worked under the government’s gaze. And NASA owned the technology.
That has changed.
These days, companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Rocket Lab — to name but a few — design, build and launch their own rockets.
Some are carriers, some build the cargo as well — satellites, supplies, people.
SpaceX, for instance, is in the process of launching 12,000 of its own satellites for a space-based broadband network, spanning the globe 24-7. The project called Starlink is a good example of the new space race.
Engineers working on it are said to feel the heat from CEO Elon Musk, who in turn can feel the heat from rival firm, OneWeb. OneWeb aims to build a broadband network with 600 satellites, while scientists complain the night sky is dying.
A global market
In 2018, the UK built more satellites than any other country outside of the US.
Look to Scotland, where academia and business mingle, producing new movers like Clyde Space and Alba Orbital. That’s on top of stayers like Surrey Satellite Technology down south.
The UK may not know what it wants with Brexit. But it does know it wants a 10 percent share of the global space market by 2030.
Portugal has its space ambitions, too. It wants to build satellites and launch them from the Azores.
Add to that list companies and agencies in India, China, Israel, Australia, all competing to take shares from the traditional players, from rockets to launch sites.
Hey, Cape Canaveral, Baikonur, French Guyana — mind your backs!
Who hasn’t been to the moon?
For decades, the list of countries who had made it to the moon numbered two.
That was Soviet Russia and the USA. And only the latter had landed people there.
But new players are storming the field.
China became the first country to land a spacecraft on the “dark side of the moon” in January 2019. It was launched on one of China’s own rockets, too.
And India is next. Its plan to launch a robotic probe to the moon in the same week of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 was no coincidence. It also builds its own rockets.
And we dare not forget Iran or North Korea. If they can build missiles, they can build rockets, too.
Ironically, the one country that’s relatively quiet on commercial space is Russia.
New space diversity race
One aspect of space seldom gets a look-in, and that is diversity. Call it contrived or cynical, but the USA is in this race as well. NASA wants its Artemis mission to be the first to land a woman on the moon by 2024.
But it’s not just gender. The Apollo program was dominated by white men. African Americans and other people of colour were not excluded but certainly under-represented. The race to change that has been slow.
Guy Bluford became the first African American astronaut in space in 1983 — more than 20 years after President Kennedy announced the plan to land on the moon.
More recently Sunita Williams, who has Indo-Slovenian heritage, has been on two ISS Expeditions. But she remains in a minority.
Germany and Australia are also in a minority, one where women head the respective country’s space agency.
It will be interesting to observe how the globalization of space exploration will alter the face of those at the top, the astronauts in space and all the engineers in between.
A deep freeze
In hindsight, it’s easy to say that human space exploration began a deep freeze when the Apollo program ended in 1972. But a lot of enthusiasm did go with it.
Other political priorities took over, like the Vietnam War.
NASA’s Shuttle Program was called into life the same year Apollo died. And it lasted more than three decades. Apollo was just three years.
But then the Challenger accident in 1986 and the Columbia accident in 2003 seriously dampened any remaining enthusiasm for American space endeavours. People got scared. So, Shuttle ended too.
Sick of slow
Meanwhile, a gang of American entrepreneurs had got sick of how slow things moved through NASA’s government-style bureaucracy.
You had people like Peter Diamandis corralling a cabal of like-minded folk to set up an inspirational competition, the XPRIZE.
Among their number were Virgin founder, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos of the online retailer Amazon.
Today, they are the ones driving a lot of the new space race.
Slowly but surely, they are edging space exploration away from ideals about science, knowledge, and a quest to understand the universe to one about commerce.
Commercial companies build the rockets and capsules that deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). And very soon, they hope to transport people as well.
Not just for space tourism — a round trip of the globe, or hotels on the moon — but on missions to the ISS, or China’s new space station, and deep space missions to Mars.
Watch out for developments on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft and SpaceX’s CrewDragon.
Science in space
The ISS has been a beacon of scientific collaboration since 1998. It has largely been spared commercial pressures. But that’s changing, too.
US President Donald Trump has made it clear that he wants NASA to hand over more of its work to industry players. He wants the ISS, and indeed all of space, to be run like a business.
There’s a rush in new space, and Trump knows it. It’s like the Gold Rush. There are minerals and resources to be mined on asteroids, and you’ll be served as you come.