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The New Space Race

By | May 26, 2017

5809939090_a9ebab3389_oThe first Space Race saw two Cold War titans pitting their brightest scientists, most innovative engineers, and boldest explorers against each other to win minds and to assert technological dominance. The  accomplishments of the United States and the Soviet Union  made Sputnik and Apollo household names, and the sheer scale of these missions still echoes throughout modern culture. Even with these memorialized accomplishments, the 21st century’s own space race is already underway, inciting new battles, not between the two Cold War enemies, but within the burgeoning field of the commercial space business. The new space race is an intense competition between private companies seeking to establish their presence in a rapidly developing high-tech market and hoping to earn their place in the pantheon of space exploration glory.

These predominantly American companies believe humanity can expand far beyond Earth’s surface, and some major players in space imaging, launch, mining, and tourism have spent decades working towards this goal. For example, United Launch Alliance is a joint venture between defense giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing, while SES S.A. is a Luxembourgian telecommunications satellite company dating back to 1984. Many of the new space race’s companies, however, were only founded in the last seventeen years. SpaceX and Blue Origin, founded in the early 2000s by tech billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, respectively, are currently developing low-cost commercial launch capabilities, including reusable first-stage rockets. Other up-and-comers like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries seek to mine asteroids for rocket fuel and rare minerals. Backed by billions of dollars and thousands of young engineers, these private ventures are aiming high and refusing to accept failure.

Central among the hazards of venturing into the unknown are the politics of the myriad questions and conundrums posed by private space development. No country has yet had to consider this issue, and given that the United States is home to a lion’s share of private space companies, American public space policy will have a tremendous impact on space development for the entire planet.

NASA in the 21st Century

Though many of today’s space experts are focused on the latest feats of SpaceX and its rivals, NASA still plays a central role in American space policy, even if its share of the national budget decreased from 4.4 percent in 1966 to 0.5 percent in 2014. NASA has roughly 18,000 employees, and its current strategy is geared towards cooperating with the growing private presence in the aerospace industry. “The notion that NASA competes with SpaceX, Blue Origin, etc. is a huge misconception. NASA can touch many things at one time that a single private entity cannot” stated Jeremy Wainscott, former Communications Director at the Alliance for Space Development in an interview with the HPR. NASA today manages a diverse fleet of satellites and orbital telescopes as well as the American portion of the International Space Station and many terrestrial facilities. It also leases property out to private companies at Cape Canaveral and, most importantly, contracts out specific work to private companies in public-private partnerships.

Wainscott continued, “Most space companies … don’t have a full market and are trying to develop themselves; space is an inherently a dangerous place, so there is a ton of risk involved.” He described that NASA helps mitigate financial risk, while the private sector conducts research and innovation more efficiently than NASA can in a “symbiotic relationship.” Today, these public-private partnerships serve as an integral part of American space policy and NASA strategy. NASA has contracts with SpaceX and Orbital ATK which charter them for resupply missions to the International Space Station. Moreover, the solid rocket boosters and engines for the Space Shuttle were contracted out to Morton Thiokol and Rocketdyne, respectively. During these missions, NASA profits from corporate competition while companies receive a stable, high-profile client. As such, several companies scramble to secure these lucrative NASA contracts.

The organizational structures of NASA and private companies also determine how missions are tasked. Gary Oleson, a Senior Engineer at Engility who sits on the Board of Directors for the Space Frontier Foundation, told the HPR “NASA gets its budget in greater or lesser detail from Congress, but reliability and safety constraints are set internally.” Conversely, Oleson said, “Commercially-oriented companies set performance constraints with a target market in mind, such as the communications satellite launch market. They aim to cover a predetermined portion of the market. Risk and reward tend to increase if the market doesn’t really exist yet.”

This difference in project procedure is emblematic of the different yet symbiotic goals of both NASA and the private sector. NASA receives its official mission objectives and budget from the government. Private companies set their own limits with the intention of targeting a market to maximize profit with their own hardware abilities and mission setup. This is why NASA currently pursues more exploratory projects like New Horizons or the James Webb telescope, while companies perform routine resupply missions or satellite deployments.

Domestic Politics: A Speedbump to Orbit

Given the relationship between NASA and the private sector, companies are still dependent on NASA for missions and guidance. This means that when NASA is on the political chopping block, American companies take notice as well. Although isolated from the budget showdown, private companies must still watch what happens to their prime customer; any budgetary adjustment can have severe impacts on NASA’s strategy, as well as those of its partners. Wainscott noted, “If Congress pulls funding for a program, NASA may have to cancel a project which it spent hundreds of millions on.”

As if this were not enough, the public-private space enterprise must keep up with Washington’s factional politics. For example, the Bush administration pursued the Constellation program to put astronauts on the moon once more by 2020 and with the long-term goal of a mission to Mars. However, the Obama administration cancelled Constellation under recommendation of the Augustine Commission in 2010, arguing that Constellation was behind schedule, over budget, and unimaginative. In its place came Orion, a spacecraft designed for an asteroid redirect mission and a Mars mission by 2032. Even with this change, Orion and its companion program, Space Launch System (SLS), have been criticized for the same woes of inefficiency and costliness. Moreover, prior to the passage of the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act, there were rumblings that the Trump administration might terminate the project in favor of a revised, manned Lunar mission. Major SLS/Orion subcontractors Aerojet Rocketdyne, Orbital ATK, Boeing, and Lockheed would have furiously opposed an early contract termination, so the project’s continued funding certainly came as welcome news. Clearly, NASA is not immune to the same partisan agendas which consecutively undo and rework the legacies of political opponents.

Beyond the political challenges facing NASA, companies must also be mindful of regulatory tape. For example, Wainscott mentioned, “A spaceflight of any kind must be licensed first through the FAA.” Acquiring these permits can take months, and  to have launches every few days, as many envision, the process needs to be sped up a lot.” The long delays can be attributed to the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, the first act of Congress which recognized private companies for their potential in space exploration and development.  One of the law’s provisions designates the FAA as responsible for regulating all commercial launches, and while initially effective, the FAA has had trouble keeping up with the rapid increase in private launches. Deregulation is one of the obvious solutions to the problem, but deregulating too quickly risks compromising safety to the point of a catastrophic accident.

International Treaties Meet Extraterrestrial Claims

Moving up yet another bureaucratic level, international law poses several multilayered tensions on resources, ownership, and sovereignty in space. In 1967, the United States signed the UN Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the government from placing weapons of mass destruction in space, militarizing the moon, or claiming sovereignty over another celestial body. However, due to political pressure from the L-5 Society, a private interest group, the United States declined to ratify the 1979 UN Moon Treaty. The Moon Treaty, a successor to the Outer Space Treaty, bans territorial claims on celestial bodies and requires international management of space resources. The United States’ failure to ratify the Moon Treaty led other space powers to follow suit. Today, the Moon Treaty is considered dead, and no countries with substantial space programs besides France and India have acceded to it. Thus, the United States is only bound to the predecessor of a failed treaty which has no protocol for enforcement. One case exemplifies the lack of legal enforcement: American entrepreneur Dennis Hope claimed the rights to sell land on the moon in 1980, and despite its ridiculousness, has been doing so for $20 per acre since then with no legal repercussions. Hope’s customers have included three former presidents, and Hope even claims to be president of a “Galactic Government” complete with a constitution and patent office.

Furthermore, the United States passed the SPACE Act of 2015 which provides any entity claiming ownership of an asteroid with the rights to its resources. Immediately, the issues with such a bold claim became clear – the United States used domestic law to assert individual rights to property in what is today a no-man’s land. The efficacy of this legislation has been met with skepticism, and although the SPACE Act explicitly states that it is not asserting sovereignty or exclusive rights over any celestial body, some legal scholars think otherwise, claiming that recognizing ownership is itself an act of sovereignty and a violation of the Outer Space Treaty. Their opponents argue that the law is ambiguous, leaving the issue altogether undecided. That has not kept some mining companies from celebrating, however. A legislative affirmation of their business plans was welcome news to space mining companies who are still years away from their first mining operation.

Much like the UN Outer Space Treaty, current international space law is replete with holes. Notably, it is unclear whether companies or individuals are bound to the terms of the Outer Space Treaty, and if they are not, it remains uncertain what degree of ownership they have over their claims in space. Furthermore, it is not clear if the United States may extend its jurisdiction into space or whether companies may claim property protections under American law while ignoring international treaties signed by the U.S. government . Ultimately, these are but a few of the legal technicalities that result from mixing the notoriously complex regimes of international law and tech law. As the consequences of these questions become less hypothetical, space companies are seeking answers. Investors want a guarantee on investment returns from space hotels and asteroid mines, not empty speculation. So far, it is mostly an American foray, but this industry and its regulations will only get more sophisticated once foreign firms announce their own projects.

The New Space Race is already well underway, with billionaires committing vast resources to earn wealth  and personal fame in a manner reminiscent of the barons and tycoons of the Gilded Age. With several markets yet to be explored, numerous companies are racing to research and patent portions of the space industry before their products garner widespread acclaim. Getting there will require plenty of grit, rocket fuel, and as it turns out, sharp political insight. Space is open for business, and it’s now anyone’s game. The New Space Race is on.

Image Source: Flickr/nasamarshall

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