While the world is preoccupied with climate change, war and artificial intelligence, another profoundly transformative phenomenon is in full swing: space exploration. And getting to where we are today is just part of a long and fascinating history. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched a rocket into space. It carried a polished 23-inch metal sphere that weighed 185 pounds and had four antennas. This first artificial satellite, Sputnik, sparked a fierce race between the United States and the Soviet Union to achieve technological dominance in space. A lot has changed since then.
Just last week, for example, SpaceX, Elon Musk’s aerospace company, carried four private passengers to the International Space Station on one of its rockets. As this was happening, Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s company, finalized a $3.4 billion contract with NASA to develop a spacecraft capable of taking people to the Moon. And Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic sent its “space plane” to the edge of space, carrying two pilots and four company employees.
These are just three of the audacious — and expensive — ongoing efforts to explore the universe in what is shaping up to be a renaissance for space travel. Superpowers — the United States and the USSR— used to be virtually the only players. Today, several other countries — like China and India, for example — have launched their own space programs and private investment is booming.
In addition to privatization and commercialization, there are other forces that will influence and shape the new space race, including militarization, managing the space pollution caused by thousands of inoperative satellites still floating in orbit, as well as the insuppressible human passion to explore.
Private companies are taking the lead and developing the new technologies needed to conquer this growing market. The space industry was valued at $469 billion in 2021. SpaceX and Blue Origin are the top competitors. But these giants are not alone: they are supported by a vast ecosystem of some 10,000 small and medium-sized companies in what is known as the New Space economy. This network of providers ranges from the producers of components for satellites and ground control systems to the designers and manufacturers of rockets, as well as those who want to profit from the rise of space tourism.
Another significant trend is the militarization of space. The major powers are developing orbital weapons and, simultaneously, defense systems against this type of attack. Anti-satellite weapons and surveillance systems are just a few examples of how space is becoming a theater of geopolitical conflict. In an incipient way, some of this is already happening.
The surprising success of the Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s invasion owes much to its access to satellite technologies that allow it to dominate the battlefield, aim its weapons with pinpoint accuracy and attack enemy supply lines. We have yet to witness the first war where an adversary’s orbital infrastructure is directly attacked, but that day will inevitably come. And when it does, the international system could be seriously destabilized.
A third aspect of the new space boom is space junk. It is made up of debris from previous satellite launches that no longer serve any function but continues to float haphazardly through space. This has created a thick layer of flotsam that no one knows how to remove. It is a growing problem because many of the new technologies require a large number of satellites to function. Proposals such as that of entrepreneur Greg Weiler of OneWeb — a company that intends to launch 100,000 satellites into space by 2030 — have raised serious concerns. As OneWeb has acknowledged, there are already almost a million pieces of orbital junk moving around the Earth at over 16,000 miles per hour, and the technologies to recover this debris are still in their infancy. Although these satellites are small, their numbers are enormous, and when they go out of service, they will still be in orbit, putting at risk all the systems that are still operational.
Why is all this happening? Two motives: profit and curiosity. Many technologies, such as global positioning systems (GPS) and projects like Elon Musk’s Starlink, can only be commercialized with a vast space presence.
In Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs and technologists’ sense that there are great fortunes to be made in the cosmos, fueling the gold rush into space. On the other hand, human beings are innately curious. Space represents an unknown horizon, an irresistible challenge for our species. Our desire to discover and explore new frontiers will continue to drive interest in space as a market and as a battlefield.
When the great British explorer George Mallory was asked in 1924 why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he replied, “because it’s there.” It sounds silly, but the challenge of what is there that we have not yet managed to conquer will always have a special attraction for humans. The thirst to be the first to conquer a challenge is one of the main factors that defines our species. We want to know what’s out there. And space... is there.