May 25, 2024

IIf the 20th century space race was about political power, this century’s will is about money. But for those who dream of sending humans back to the moon and possibly Mars, it’s an exciting time to be alive whether it’s presidents or billionaires paying the fare.

Spaceflight is experiencing a renaissance moment, bringing a fresh energy not seen since the days of the Apollo program and for the first time with private companies rather than governments leading the charge.

A series of recent milestone missions, not least the increasingly successful test flights of the largest rocket ever made and the first privately built probe to land on the lunar surfaceembedded a growing notion that humans are entering what has been called the “third space age.”

“To say we’re in a new era is absolutely fair,” says Greg Sadlier, a space economist and the co-founder of the consultancy. “We are in the age of competition, or the commercial age. The barriers to entry are lower, the costs have come down, opening the doors to a much larger pool of nations,” he said. “It’s the democratization of space, if you will.”

Orbital launches by year

Today more than 70 countries have space programs, but for a long time the USA and the Soviet Union were the only major players.

Mankind’s first space explorer, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, orbited the globe in April 1961. A year later, US President John F Kennedy gave his famous “we choose to go to the moon” speech, promising to put an American man on the lunar surface by the end of the decade before an “enemy flag of conquest “.

A mural of Yuri Gagarin in Krasnogorsk, outside Moscow. Photo: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

“All of this cost us all a lot of money,” Kennedy admitted, but the Cold War motivated him to spend the modern-day equivalent of hundreds of billions in American taxpayers’ money to win the space race.

The end of the cold war in 1989 brought a brief moment of global optimism, ushering in the second, more cooperative space age. The International Space Station was assembled over 13 years and since 2000 people of various nationalities have been living in space continuously and working together on experiments in the orbiting laboratory.

However, this second era also saw a decline in efforts to get humans further into space, symbolized by Nasa’s space shuttle program, which never sent humans beyond Earth’s orbit and was finally disbanded in 2011, largely because the US government did not want to continue to bankroll its high costs. After that, Washington had to rely on Moscow’s Soyuz rockets to get his astronauts into space.

SpaceX’s Starship rocket stands at its Texas launch pad. Photo: AP

Yet those high costs have now been driven down by private businesses entering the scene, often as government contractors. In recent years, some of these businesses have started to make money, although not for main reasons such as space tourism, but mostly for sending out communication satellites, especially broadband internet. Many estimates suggest that the global space industry could generate revenues in excess of $1tn within the next two decades.

In an article published last year by the influential strategy and management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, global management partner Bob Sternfels and his colleagues wrote to CEOs: “If space is not part of your strategy, it should be.”

They added: “Only recently have we seen significant acceleration in the cost curve: launch costs have dropped 95% (with another massive reduction expected in the coming years) thanks to reuse, improved engineering and increased volumes.”

Starship size comparison

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been at the forefront of this movement, launched 96 times last year with its reusable rockets. The company’s largest system, called Starship and still in development, was marketed as an interplanetary explorer. Musk says he built the 120-meter rocket so that humans can colonize Mars. Before then Nasa SpaceX contracted to land astronauts, including the first woman, on the moon this decade.

As a business, it could make money long before then by serving as the equivalent of a flying freighter. Starship has a payload of up to 150 metric tons, five times the load the spacecraft could carry.

Global politics still play a role in space, but with more players. China has overtaken Russia as the main national contender to the US, with its own space station in operation, probes on the moon and a rover on Mars. Beijing will launch a robotic spacecraft to the far side of the moon on Friday.

The moon’s south pole in particular is seen as a “golden belt” for lunar exploration as it contains water ice, which can be used as drinking water and even broken down to make rocket fuel.

Orbital launches

Scientists are nervous about both the politicization and commercialization of space, especially with talk of future “mining” operations on the pristine, pristine moon. Proponents of space exploration, however, point to progress that has been made so far. The CT scan, a critical medical device that can identify tumors, traces its origins to pre-Apollo mission research; astronauts on the space station used the unique microgravity environment to better understand diseases such as than Alzheimer’s.

For economists like Sadlier, the third space age creates an unprecedented situation – one that could improve the foundations of the market system. “In economics, we assume that resources are limited; land is limited; natural resources are limited,” he said. “With space, it allows us to change it.”

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