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The new space race

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The new era of space exploration is faster-moving, more international and open to far more players than ever before — all of whom stand to determine who can access and profit from space.

The big picture: Today's space age looks very little like the one that began 50 years ago. Space is now a consequential part of our daily lives. Our ability to consume media, navigate our commutes, predict weather and monitor developments on battlefields hinges on satellites orbiting the planet.

The commercial and state entities driving space exploration will shape geopolitics and national security on Earth — and determine whether we become a multi-planetary species.
"Space is going to look a lot like air, land, sea — for better and worse. That means more innovation, more participation and increased benefits for everyone. But it also means more congestion, more uncertainty, more competition and even the risk of conflict."
Brian Weeden, Secure World Foundation, tells Axios

What's happening: NASA is working toward landing people back on the moon by 2024, with an eye toward reaching Mars in the 2030s.

  • China's Chang'e 4 mission is exploring the far side of the moon as part of the country's strategy for establishing a long-term presence on the lunar surface.
  • Russia is pursuing a heavy-lift rocket, while Japan continues to use robotic spacecraft to explore the solar system.
  • India just tested an anti-satellite missile, which the nation hailed as a major defense achievement, but was seen by other nations as a reckless move that produced hundreds of pieces of space junk.

Between the lines: Private companies are equally powerful players today, transforming space into a realm that can be accessed by wealthy, motivated individuals, not just a handful of nations. The space industry is projected to be a $1.1 trillion market by the 2040s.

  • Boeing and SpaceX are racing to launch American astronauts to space from U.S. soil for the first time since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.
  • With its fleet of reusable Falcon 9 rocket boosters and the Falcon Heavy rocket that lifts huge payloads to space, Elon Musk's SpaceX has dominated the launch business over the past few years, despite delays in delivering on contracts worth millions (the next Falcon Heavy launch is slated for Wednesday at 6:35 pm ET).
  • Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, also headed by billionaires, are working toward launching paying tourists to suborbital space. Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin also has SpaceX in its sights, as it aims to deploy payloads and send humans into deep space on reusable rockets.
  • Smaller outfits like Rocket Lab are sending small satellites to orbit, with other launchers — like Virgin Orbit — expected to come online soon.

Yes, but: While rocket companies seem to be a dime a dozen at the moment, it's unclear who will survive in an increasingly crowded industry.

The bottom line: The new space age is about more than just a few nations making it to orbit and beyond. Private industry is leading the way, too.

  • And yet, without the money funneled into the private sector by government agencies like NASA, those companies wouldn't exist, creating a tenuous, symbiotic relationship that will likely define our future in space.