We have discovered the enormity of the cosmos and the immense empty spaces that exist between the galaxies. We have disassembled and reassembled the atom, and we have manipulated the genetic code that is behind all living things. But now we are failing—precisely when scientific discoveries and the most powerful inventions of history are in our hands—at the tasks that are critical to our survival. Eliminating waste. Controlling climate change. Differentiating human from artificial. Separating truth from lies. It is up to each one of us to make the most of this brave new world, or rather - this brave new universe.
Just as the origins of the Internet lie in military-led projects, the beginnings of space exploration were motivated by the quest for global geopolitical hegemony. The first act of the Space Race was characterized by competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the second one by collaboration that allowed the development of programs like the Mir space station (1986–2001) and the International Space Station (ISS). We are now in the third act, and new players are coming onto the stage, seemingly seeking the leading role in this significant business opportunity. This market is currently estimated at around $350 million—a figure that is set to rise to somewhere between $1 trillion (according to Morgan Stanley) and over $3 trillion (according to BofA Securities) by 2040.
The public faces of the New Space Race are multibillion dollar private empires and their masters: Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos), SpaceX (Elon Musk) and Virgin Galactic (Sir Richard Branson). They are all over the headlines with plans to colonize Mars, deploy satellites, and fly to low-Earth orbit. However, there is a lot more going on here.
Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are planning to explore suborbital tourism, where passengers are taken to the very edge of space, whereas SpaceX is planning to put its passengers in Earth’s orbit or even to the Moon. These companies are pushing the envelope of aerospace technology. Take, for example, one of the most critical aspects for the progress of the space exploration business: the cost associated with sending cargo into low-Earth orbit, which is defined as orbital altitudes of less than 1,200 mi. The vast majority of objects in orbit are in this region, including the ISS and the Hubble telescope. In the early 1980s, the cost per kilogram of cargo on the space shuttle was greater than $80,000. By the mid-1990s, it was less than $27,000. In 2009, Falcon 1, by SpaceX, brought this price down to less than $10,000, and in 2017, Falcon 9 broke the $2,000 barrier. In just four decades, the cost of putting objects in orbit has fallen by over 97%. SpaceX also notched another historical feat by, in November 2020, taking NASA astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Crew Program.
Bezos and his brother will be in the first crewed spaceflight of Blue Origin’s autonomous rocket New Shepard, scheduled for July 20th (a nod to the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing). A third spot was auctioned for $28 million (proceeds will be donated to the company’s non-profit “Club for the Future”), and the last spot will be occupied by Wally Funk. She was one of the 13 female aviators that back in 1961 passed the exams for admission to become a NASA astronaut but has never actually been to space due to the agency’s policies at the time. The round trip, which will take roughly ten minutes, will usher a new era of space tourism. Of course, in the early days not many of us will be able to afford the price of entry – but this will rapidly change, as more companies are exploring the possibilities of a virgin (galactic) market (speaking of Virgin Galactic – Sir Branson will try to beat Bezos to the edge of space by nine days, with a July 11th ride in his VSS Unity spacecraft alongside two pilots and three specialists.)
Space exploration by private companies significantly impacts many different business segments here on Earth—from multipurpose satellites which, among other things, will potentially broaden access to the Internet around the world, providing high-resolution images of Earth’s surface and informing our devices of their precise positioning, to utilizing spacecraft for cargo transport, defense systems, commercial flights, and space tourism.
The New Space Race will bring important benefits to all of us. We will experience more efficient ways of travelling, with less greenhouse gas emissions. It has already become much simpler and tremendously cheaper to deploy satellites that are able to monitor climate events and food security. Mining asteroids will become a reality, avoiding shortages of critical minerals back home. Space factories will be built, where goods for consumption on Earth will be manufactured at a fraction of the cost due to the unique conditions found up there.
The world’s population is now at roughly 7.9 billion people, and we will be close to 10 billion in three short decades. That means people to feed, more energy to generate, more transportation, cities, healthcare, education, and pollution. The challenges are immense, and it is very clear – as we have witnessed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic – that technology will play a colossal role in this journey. Buckle up, it is going to be a wild ride – and not only for the billionaires.