Aug 3, 2021 - Science

Why the space race is worth running

Illustration of a sports trophy with an astronaut instead of an athlete.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Billionaires, not governments, are the contestants in the new space race. Their competition is drawing criticism and eye rolling — and sparking debate about whether it actually benefits the rest of us.

The big picture: International and corporate competition have been a part of the space industry since the launch of Sputnik nearly 65 years ago.

  • Over those years, there have always been critics who have argued that resources would be better spent on Earth.
  • But competition can spur not just exploration, but the creation of transformative new industries and technologies that could be worth trillions.

By the numbers: Morgan Stanley estimates the global space industry could generate revenue of more than $1 trillion by 2040, up from roughly $350 billion now.

  • If that happens, it'll be in part because competition between commercial space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin has helped bring down the cost of reaching low-Earth orbit by a factor of 20, according to NASA.
  • Reductions in launch costs have helped make it possible to cheaply put thousands of satellites into orbit, with the number projected to rise from 3,400 now to as many as 100,000 over the next decade.
  • And while ardent proponents of space dream of asteroid mining and lunar manufacturing facilities, the most immediate offshoots of the new space age will come in far cheaper satellite broadband internet access, which Morgan Stanley notes will directly benefit environmental science and climate action here on Earth.

Context: While the new space race is primarily commercial, political competition may not be far behind, with China in particular "working to match or exceed U.S. capabilities in space," according to the annual threat assessment published in April by the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence.

Background: Criticism has followed the space program since the days when rockets were primarily the province of governments, not Silicon Valley billionaires.

  • In the recent documentary "Summer of Soul," about a series of concerts in Harlem during the summer of 1969, one audience member decries the waste of taxpayer money on the Apollo program that could have been used to target poverty and racism.
  • Add in the need to address climate change, and you'd capture the tenor of criticism today.

Our thought bubble: If the first space race was primarily about symbolism and geopolitical prestige, the new space race will be about real fortunes and realpolitik. But symbols should still matter.

  • Humanity loses something in the absence of a frontier, and the opportunity for heroes — and astronauts are still heroes — to push back against one.
  • Just as it matters who drives progress forward on tech here on Earth, it will matter which companies and which countries take the lead in the new space race.
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