Space used to be the realm of a few, mighty nations. Today, they are sharing the cosmos with developing countries, entrepreneurs and even middle school students.
Led by Axios' Alison Snyder, Steve LeVine and Andrew Freedman, our special report this week looks at the geopolitical, commercial and oh-so-human forces shaping space now and for decades to come.
3... 2... 1...
1 big thing: The new global race to space
A few years ago, a Silicon Valley billionaire decried that he and his friends dreamed of flying cars, and instead got 140 characters. He was wrong: They, along with entrepreneurs and governments around the world, got much more — a space race on steroids, writes Steve LeVine.
The big picture: From Dubai to the U.S., Tokyo to Moscow, Tel Aviv to Beijing and more, billionaires, privateers and political leaders are vying to land on the Moon, colonize Mars, mine asteroids — and just get off the Earth.
- "Whatever we have evolved into hundreds and thousands of years from now, we'll look at these decades as when the human race moved off the planet," said Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation.
There are a handful of catalysts to the race, including national pride and irresistible interest in an estimated future multi-trillion-dollar industry. But neither of those has primarily driven the private commercial actors who are the most powerful forces behind the new age — billionaires like Jeff Bezos with his Blue Origin, Elon Musk with SpaceX, and Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic.
For them, the primary motivation appears to be romantic. All grew up amid Apollo and Star Trek, and viewed the stars as, in Jim Kirk's words, "the final frontier," a place where humans were at long last going, Diamandis tells Axios. They thought they possibly could even go up, should science develop rapidly, and were deeply disappointed when, in the 1970s, NASA stopped sending humans to deep space.
Diamandis himself helped ignite the race with a $10 million prize competition, launched in 1996, for the first private actor to send a rocket into suborbital space. When it was awarded in 2004, the private industry took off.
Between the lines: A space program has become a must-have for governments, and not just for the usual players:
- United Arab Emirates: In 2021, coinciding with the country's 50th birthday, the UAE plans to have a spacecraft orbiting Mars.
- Saudi Arabia is investing $1 billion in Branson's space companies.
- Last month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he aims to put humans in space within four years.
- Israel's commercial SpaceIL plans to land a spacecraft on the Moon next year.
All this activity looks a lot like the centuries-ago Age of Exploration, says Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist, who tells Axios that we are now becoming "spacefaring nations."
- The result can be peaceful enterprise, Tyson says. As long as people are just going places, "then do what the hell you want in space. Go mine asteroids, set up colonies. It's a big universe."
- But, he goes on, "if you go to the Moon or to Mars and set up a military base, that can be viewed as a threat."
- To protect American interests, President Trump last summer ordered the establishment of a Space Force.
Already, says Nicholas Wright, a U.K.-based analyst, equipment in orbit jams signals, blinds with lasers, and spies using cyber tools. That makes him wonder, "Is space fundamentally a military story?"
It won't be, if the private players have anything to do with it. By 2040, estimates Morgan Stanley, the space economy will be worth $1.1 trillion; Bank of America estimates $2.7 trillion.
- As of now, these numbers are notional; the private sector is still trying to decipher what it can do in space that it cannot on Earth — or that millions of people will pay for.
- Says Diamandis, "I am focused on, 'Can you build a business that makes money in space?'"
2. Billionaires and their rockets
The billionaires pouring money into rockets don't appear, at least so far, to be focused entirely on money. Instead, they are turning childhood love of sci-fi into a private space exploration companies. Elon Musk has SpaceX, Richard Branson has Virgin Galactic and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has Stratolaunch.
But Jeff Bezos is much richer than all of them put together, which means he's been able to worry less than any about profits, shareholders or commercial contracts, writes Dan Primack.
He's also been much more secretive. Bezos rarely talks publicly about Blue Origin, his space company, except to say "it's the most important work I'm doing." Most of the company's development has happened behind the scenes.
- Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, when Amazon was still best known for selling books.
- Today, it has some 1,300 employees split between its Kent, Wash., headquarters and its West Texas launch site.
- Blue Origin uses reusable rockets designed to both launch and land upright, and plans to focus on both space tourism and commercial payloads.
- SpaceX is already launching satellites on reusable rockets, while Blue Origin has sent test payloads.
The bottom line: There's a sneaking suspicion among many in the industry that Blue Origin is much further along than it's shared. And even if not, it has unmatched access to resources that could help it leapfrog the competition.
Go deeper: The space race goes private
3. Back to space, from the U.S.
After an absence lasting 9 years, the U.S. is seeking to resume launching humans to space from American soil, writes Andrew Freedman.
But this time it won’t be NASA doing the launches — it will be Boeing and SpaceX, private contractors that NASA selected to transport crew to the International Space Station.
- Both companies have a track record of satellite launches but are untested when it comes to human spaceflight.
- They're also relying on entirely new and as-yet untested spacecraft.
Safety is a major sticking point, particularly the standards by which NASA, Boeing and SpaceX calculate the odds of killing or permanently disabling an astronaut.
- In July, the Government Accountability Office said NASA had not applied consistent safety standards to SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft designs and launch plans.
- The GAO said meeting the standards has also been difficult from the companies’ perspectives, given the novelty of their designs.
- Boeing told Axios it expects to "exceed" NASA's safety requirements for loss of crew and mission capability.
Where it stands: NASA, SpaceX and Boeing have announced their initial commercial crew test flight and ISS mission astronauts, who have now begun training. Both companies are planning uncrewed test flights early next year, with the first crewed tests to come later in 2019 and possibly continue into 2020. The schedule has been delayed numerous times, most recently on October 4.
4. Rivals on Earth — and above
At his rallies, President Trump's base gets fired up about the creation of a Space Force. And behind the scenes, the Pentagon is pushing to stand it up on deadline. But publicly at least, it's not much more fleshed out than the idea, writes Lauren Meier.
The big picture: A stated objective of the new force is to pull together U.S. space operations — 90% of which are under the Air Force — to defend satellite infrastructure and combat adversaries.
- But as of now, the U.S. is far behind its rivals in organizing militarily in space.
Between the lines: Russia has had sophisticated launch systems for decades, in addition to another that tracks objects more than 30,000 miles above the Earth, according to the CSIS 2018 Space Threat Assessment.
- "Our main rivals in space have already begun reorganizations to elevate space within their military establishments," Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at CSIS, told Axios.
- Both China and Russia are working to field anti-satellite weapons "that could blind or damage sensitive, space-based optical sensors, such as those used for remote sensing or missile defense," according to a February report from the Director of National Intelligence.
- In recent years, China launched an anti-satellite weapon that can attack orbiting military, missile-warning and communication satellites, per the assessment.
- The debris such a strike would produce could linger for generations and interfere with satellites.
What's next: The Pentagon and Air Force have separately estimated $8 billion and $13 billion budgets for these tasks over the next five years, respectively. They expect to complete a new U.S. Space Command by the end of this year, and to include the cost of standing up a space force in the president's 2020 budget request.
5. A confident NASA Inc.
Given the rapid success of private space companies, NASA has gone through some profound soul-searching about what its role should be in the rest of the 21st century, writes Andrew.
Its answer sounds as poised and self-possessed as the Right Stuff days: NASA will continue to be a trailblazer for those private sector innovators. In other words, NASA — and not the billionaires — will still be shining the light.
- Specifically, NASA — which celebrated its 60th anniversary this week — will prove concepts for private missions in low-Earth orbit, to the Moon or Mars, NASA administrator James Bridenstine tells Axios.
What's next: In a summer conversation, Bridenstine said NASA’s job is not “routine” things, but to pioneer new technologies and missions.
- The first test will come when, assuming the Trump administration gets its way, the Space Station is turned over to the private sector sometime after 2024, opening up low-Earth orbit to more commercial applications.
Bridenstine has gotten some bad press for recommending that NASA study allowing companies to sponsor its missions, raising the prospect of rockets painted with commercial logos or named after them. He’s also spoken of needing to make astronauts household names.
6. So much junk
This visualization shows the 18,120 objects being tracked in low-Earth orbit by the U.S. military's Joint Space Operations Center — including nearly 13,000 that are classified as space debris.
The details: In low-Earth orbit, the overwhelming majority of objects are pieces of satellites, rocket bodies and boosters. And that doesn't include millions of bits and pieces that are too small to track but are still potentially damaging.
Go deeper: Read more about space debris.
7. Faster internet, from space
Cheaper rocket launches and better technology may be about to make internet service much faster, writes Kim Hart.
The big picture: For nearly 30 years, companies have used satellites to beam high-speed internet to remote areas that are hard to reach with cable and fiber networks. But it's often a service of last resort.
Now a handful of companies are launching satellites that orbit closer to Earth, which will reduce service lag time because the signal won't have to travel as far and will carry more capacity.
- These constellations of satellites may compete more directly with terrestrial wireless broadband systems on speed and price than the older and slower satellite systems.
The bottom line: These companies will require a large number of subscribers — on the order of tens of millions — to recoup their costs and be profitable.
Go deeper: Read the full story.
8. Houston, we have a rocket bubble
Some experts are skeptical that space will become a trillion-dollar industry, and a bubble may already be forming in the current space economy.
The billionaires tend to steal the space show. But behind them are about 40 other rocket companies looking to capture — and build more demand for — the market to launch small satellites and other payloads, writes Alison Snyder.
The big picture: People love rockets. They’ve inspired billionaires to enter the space industry and are obviously necessary for launching satellites and for any vision of humans living and working off the Earth. But launching rockets isn't how people currently make money in space — that's largely satellites for national security and people watching TV.
Between the lines: Today, small satellites piggyback on rockets whose primary mission is putting larger payloads into orbit. An argument for small launchers — those that can carry up to 500 kg into low-Earth orbit — is that they can provide on-demand service to customers.
- But the price per kilogram to launch with a small rocket is 5-10X greater, says Carissa Christensen, founder of aerospace consultancy Bryce Space and Technology. "That is a big premium to pay for schedule control."
- Rocket Lab, Vector and Virgin Orbit are the current frontrunners in the race.
- DARPA is holding a challenge to develop the capability to launch satellites on short notice.
What to watch: Industry experts say there is a bubble in the small-launch market and that some companies won't survive after a few more years.
- “There are certainly niche opportunities for those vehicles. But the number of vehicles in development compared to demand is wildly out of sync,” says Christensen.
- On the demand side, the FAA forecasts the launch of 1,753 satellites — about 75% of which will be small —in the next 5 years. But each won't go on its own rocket and experts say it's unclear the demand will be sustained.
- "It is incumbent on everyone — operators and investors — that we aren’t overfunding and overhyping," says venture capitalist Sunil Nagaraj.
The bottom line: Comparing the current small-launch landscape to the dot-com bubble, Christensen says, "That kind of disruptive uncertainty is in no way incompatible with an industry that transforms to new and broader capabilities."
9. The space race in 1 chart
In the new century, China has joined the U.S. and Russia as a top player in the space race. Here are the civil, military, commercial and government satellites that each has launched.
One big thing: China has eclipsed Russia, with 237 satellite launches since 2007, compared with Russia's 122. But the U.S. remains dominant, with 631 as of April. A lot of other countries make up the "other" category in the chart above, primarily Canada, France, Japan and the U.K.
Go deeper: How China plans to pull ahead.
10. Something wondrous
Astronomers think all stars have planets orbiting them, writes Harry Stevens. The chart above shows those they've found and how similar they are to Earth.
Take a guess: Around what year did humans first discover a planet orbiting a star other than the Sun? It wasn't thousands of years ago, during the time of the Mayan civilization; or in the era of Galileo, when scientists began using telescopes to observe the skies.
It's been just 30 years.
In 1988, scientists announced the discovery of a planet orbiting a pulsar nearly 5,000 light years away.
- Over the last three decades, astronomers have confirmed the existence of more than 3,000 "exoplanets" — most since the 2009 launch of the Kepler space telescope, which detects them as they pass in front of their host star and dim the light received by the telescope.
What's new: The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, Kepler's successor that launched in April, has already found two exoplanets and will likely detect thousands more in the coming years. And this week researchers announced more evidence that they've spotted an exomoon for the first time.
Why it matters: Exoplanets could provide clues to how Earth and our solar system formed, and some may be able to support life of their own.