Axios Space

A toy astronaut holding a briefcase.

August 03, 2021

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1 big thing: Why the space race is worth running

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

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The competition between billionaires in the new space race is drawing criticism and eye rolling — and sparking debate about whether it actually benefits the rest of us, my colleague Bryan Walsh writes.

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.

2. Boeing is getting its do-over

Boeing's Starliner awaits launch atop its Atlas V rocket

Boeing's Starliner awaits its launch atop an Atlas V rocket. Photo: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Boeing is set to launch a redo of an uncrewed test of its Starliner spacecraft — designed to one day carry astronauts — to the International Space Station this week.

Why it matters: This is a high-stakes test for Boeing, which failed to get its Starliner to the station during its first uncrewed test flight in December 2019.

The latest: Boeing was scheduled to launch the space capsule today, but the company postponed the mission due to a valve issue with the Starliner itself.

  • It's possible the launch could be rescheduled for Wednesday, but it's not yet clear whether the issue will be fixed in time.
  • “We’re disappointed with today’s outcome and the need to reschedule our Starliner launch,” John Vollmer, program manager for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, said in a statement.
  • If Starliner launches Wednesday, the spacecraft is expected to dock with the space station on Thursday, demonstrating to NASA that Boeing is moving forward toward its goal of sending astronauts to orbit.

Background: After the Starliner failed to make it to the space station during its 2019 test, NASA and the company investigated the malfunction, suggesting a number of fixes that Boeing has instituted over the past year.

  • The malfunctions during the first launch were so serious that some of them could have resulted in loss of the capsule.

The intrigue: The Starliner was initially expected to get off the ground last week, but an issue on the space station delayed the launch.

  • Not long after a new Russian module docked to the station on Thursday, the module's thrusters began firing unexpectedly, sending the station into a spin.
  • Ground controllers got the situation under control and the crew reportedly wasn't in danger, but the Boeing launch was delayed in order to give the space agency more time to check out the station's systems after the scare.

3. Here come the Perseids

A photographer watches the clouds of the Milky Way and a meteor overhead

A Perseid meteor seen in 2016. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The Perseid meteor shower peaks next week, and as with most years, it's expected to put on quite a show for folks under dark skies on the ground.

Why it matters: The Perseid meteor shower is largely considered the best of the year with meteor rates that could have people in areas with very little light pollution seeing more than 40 meteors per hour.

Details: The shower should hit its peak the night of Aug. 11 into the early morning hours of Aug. 12.

  • The crescent Moon should set early, leaving plenty of dark night sky for spotting meteors.
  • If you can't get outside (or you have bad weather), NASA will air a livestream of the meteor shower showing views from its own cameras.

Where to watch: The best place to watch a meteor shower is anywhere away from artificial light with a wide view of the sky and very few clouds.

  • Allow your eyes time to adjust to the dark and try not to look at phones. The bright, harsh light can ruin night vision.
  • "The Perseids will appear as quick, small streaks of light: they get their name because they look like they’re coming from the direction of the constellation Perseus (near Aries and Taurus in the night sky)," NASA said in a blog post.
  • Don't get too hung up on where in the sky the meteors are coming from, however. As long as you have a good view, you'll get a good show.

1 fun thing: The Perseids happen each summer when the Earth passes through the trail of dust left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle.

4. Out of this world reading list

Russia's Nauka module docked to the International Space Station with Earth in the background

Russia's Nauka module attached to the space station. Photo: NASA

It was his day off. Then the Space Station went for a spin. (Kenneth Chang, New York Times)

Chirag Parikh named executive secretary of National Space Council (Jeff Foust, SpaceNews)

Light detected behind a black hole for the first time (Ashley Strickland, CNN)

How do scientists calculate the age of a star? (Lisa Grossman and Helen Thompson, Science News)

5. Weekly dose of awe: Galactic pileup

A trio of galaxies interacting as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope

Photo: ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. Dalcanton

Galaxies aren't static objects stuck in time.

  • Astronomers now know galaxies can have bursts of star formation and even merge and interact with one another, warping their features.
  • This photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope shows off three galaxies caught interacting with one another, changing their shapes.

Big thanks to Alison Snyder, Sam Baker and Sheryl Miller for editing this week’s edition and to Bryan for writing. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. 💫