Low-cost launches: The new space frontier

America is used to being "first" in space, even if Russia put Sputnik I up months before the U.S. put Explorer I in orbit, and Yuri Gagarin got into space a month before Alan Shepherd.  The truth is, only Americans have walked on the Moon, and American companies continue to lead in various aspects of space technology.  But a new space race is on. 

This month, China put a highly capable robotic rover on the dark side of the Moon — a benchmark first.  The rover is now sending back photos.  In the meantime, races for Mars, the Moon, and various uses of near-Earth space continue. 

Maybe the most interesting space race, for the moment, is a quiet one by various companies — those completely American and preparing to launch from American soil to foreign companies or those launching from foreign soil — to lower the cost of putting satellites in orbit.  This private-sector competition is increasingly fierce, marked by continuing advancements in capability and innovation.

A series of overlapping revolutions is occurring.  On one hand, satellite technology is getting more sophisticated, smaller, and lighter.  On another, the needs for and uses of small satellites continue to grow, from security and research science to communications connectivity and fast reaction to crises. 

The shrinking size and weight of satellites has triggered, in turn, a robust competition for lower-cost launches to inner orbits, with a phalanx of new companies and governments striving to be first among equals, aiming to prove they can get to orbit, making the case for spreading commercial and government launches among many cost-effective providers.

The most notable aspect of this new space race — which seems to have smaller American companies chasing a few zealous foreign entrants — is that we know that the race will be won, and that the U.S. government and other governments, together with commercial providers, will have to start diversifying launch operations.  Necessity has always been the mother of invention, and thus, the enduring issues of cost per launch, more rapid responsiveness to mission demands, and a pressing need to take advantage of private-sector innovation ensures diversity in solutions used by government.

Additionally, while uncertainty runs rampant as to who will first place men on Mars, the die is cast when it comes to reduced cost to Earth's orbit.  Either a small circle of purely American companies (which one might define as American technology, mostly American-funded, and launched from American soil) or a few foreign launchers will begin to carve up the new market for low-cost, low-orbit launches.    

We know that the race will be won by some group of ambitious young companies — foreign or domestic.  The only real question is what this will mean for those seeking to offer services commercially by putting smaller satellites up, and how the new capability will affect the U.S. government's ability to place assets in orbit.  As space quickly grows in critical importance to a wide range of U.S. national security, economic, and other interests, the emphasis on rapidity, responsiveness, and resilience in space is only going to grow.

For now, the big observation is simply this: a new space race is now heating up, and it involves seeking highly secure, low-cost, and high-value launches to orbit for both commercial and government satellites.  Sputnik, Gagarin, and even Soyuz aside, the smart money is probably on U.S. companies — and maybe a few foreign ones that watched our early days of space, when the U.S. set race terms, pace, and goal line, then landed men on the Moon. 

Steve Mosteiro is a former strategic planner, policy analyst, and missile defense expert with the U.S. Office of Secretary of Defense and the Office of Secretary of the Air Force.

America is used to being "first" in space, even if Russia put Sputnik I up months before the U.S. put Explorer I in orbit, and Yuri Gagarin got into space a month before Alan Shepherd.  The truth is, only Americans have walked on the Moon, and American companies continue to lead in various aspects of space technology.  But a new space race is on. 

This month, China put a highly capable robotic rover on the dark side of the Moon — a benchmark first.  The rover is now sending back photos.  In the meantime, races for Mars, the Moon, and various uses of near-Earth space continue. 

Maybe the most interesting space race, for the moment, is a quiet one by various companies — those completely American and preparing to launch from American soil to foreign companies or those launching from foreign soil — to lower the cost of putting satellites in orbit.  This private-sector competition is increasingly fierce, marked by continuing advancements in capability and innovation.

A series of overlapping revolutions is occurring.  On one hand, satellite technology is getting more sophisticated, smaller, and lighter.  On another, the needs for and uses of small satellites continue to grow, from security and research science to communications connectivity and fast reaction to crises. 

The shrinking size and weight of satellites has triggered, in turn, a robust competition for lower-cost launches to inner orbits, with a phalanx of new companies and governments striving to be first among equals, aiming to prove they can get to orbit, making the case for spreading commercial and government launches among many cost-effective providers.

The most notable aspect of this new space race — which seems to have smaller American companies chasing a few zealous foreign entrants — is that we know that the race will be won, and that the U.S. government and other governments, together with commercial providers, will have to start diversifying launch operations.  Necessity has always been the mother of invention, and thus, the enduring issues of cost per launch, more rapid responsiveness to mission demands, and a pressing need to take advantage of private-sector innovation ensures diversity in solutions used by government.

Additionally, while uncertainty runs rampant as to who will first place men on Mars, the die is cast when it comes to reduced cost to Earth's orbit.  Either a small circle of purely American companies (which one might define as American technology, mostly American-funded, and launched from American soil) or a few foreign launchers will begin to carve up the new market for low-cost, low-orbit launches.    

We know that the race will be won by some group of ambitious young companies — foreign or domestic.  The only real question is what this will mean for those seeking to offer services commercially by putting smaller satellites up, and how the new capability will affect the U.S. government's ability to place assets in orbit.  As space quickly grows in critical importance to a wide range of U.S. national security, economic, and other interests, the emphasis on rapidity, responsiveness, and resilience in space is only going to grow.

For now, the big observation is simply this: a new space race is now heating up, and it involves seeking highly secure, low-cost, and high-value launches to orbit for both commercial and government satellites.  Sputnik, Gagarin, and even Soyuz aside, the smart money is probably on U.S. companies — and maybe a few foreign ones that watched our early days of space, when the U.S. set race terms, pace, and goal line, then landed men on the Moon. 

Steve Mosteiro is a former strategic planner, policy analyst, and missile defense expert with the U.S. Office of Secretary of Defense and the Office of Secretary of the Air Force.