NASA & SpaceX Launch – A New Milestone in Space Exploration
With contributions by the professors from the Space Governance Research Group at Texas A&M University: Dr. Robert GREER and Dr. Daniel CONWAY
Over the years, space has proven to be one of the few topics that captivated people from all around the world to follow the same TV programming or online event at the same time. Individuals with different backgrounds, ethnicities, races, and religions were united by the same curiosity of the unknown. Even in our most difficult moments, space has succeeded in bringing us a hope light for a better future. Earlier this year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and private American space company, SpaceX, provided the world a glimmer of hope at a time where people around the planet are suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic and are protesting systemic racism. Saturday, May 30, 2020, will forever be significant in history as a giant leap forward in cosmic exploration because it marked the first time a commercial company launched humans to space, and it was the first crewed launch from America in the last nine years. NASA and SpaceX have written history, and the 10.3 million online viewers are part of it, as it was the most-watched NASA event online ever.
Moreover, the launch was a significant step in the democratization of space and provided a glimpse at what the future of human space exploration might look like. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, was launched with Demo-2 NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken flying to the International Space Station. The most exciting part is not the launch itself, but the things that follow. This is an outstanding result of a public-private partnership (PPP) because it will change the future of human development for outer space. As Space.com relates, “Demo-2 marks the return of human orbital spaceflight to US soil after a nearly decade-long absence, and it signals the beginning of a new era in space exploration – one led by commercial companies.” This historical launch will be written about in books for decades and centuries to come as the realization of the beloved science fiction literature, where humanity enters the unknown depths of space, explores terrific and strange new places, and finds inspiration in the mystery of hidden corners of the universe. Science fiction literature and films have created a world of wonder. Now humanity has a renewed chance to enter this domain with our advances in science and technology and because of increased cooperation between public and private sectors.
Space has been managed by the national agencies for much of the 20th and 21st centuries, but this is changing. Private sector involvement is not new; public-private partnerships have been a part of space development since 1961. As time passes, the technological and cost barriers of accessing economic potential in space have decreased, and the private sector increases its interest in development and participation, while also expanding out of areas it had previously attained a considerable presence in. Similarly, because of the innovations of the private sector and increased engagement with space for profit-making, governments have come to rely more heavily on the private sector. The crewed NASA-SpaceX launch has shown that the private sector is one step closer to taking on additional roles in space traditionally managed by national agencies. While there is a long history of private sector involvement in space, this launch is a new milestone in how space is developing with technological, economic, international, and military ramifications.
Immersion in space history
To understand the launch’s real importance, one must first understand the history of the space industry’s public and private relationships. The private sector has become integral to the space industry around the globe, and the US is no different. It has slowly but surely embedded itself into the fabric of space for four decades. It became part of a division of labor that managed the ever-increasing capability gap between government space agencies’ capabilities and the needs of the myriad government users of space, requiring significant technological advances and cost-cutting through reliable, reusable services available for hire. But, most importantly, the private space industry has continually increased its global economic impact by building on pre-existing systems and creating cost-cutting advances in reusability and technology. There has been a gradual shift from industry reliance on the government to reliance on private industries for four decades; this launch signals the end of an era of government as the primary provider of space services and the beginning of a new dawn for private companies.
Before 1982, the US government held sole responsibility for every launch and payload that occurred on US soil; a payload is any cargo carried into space, be it inanimate or alive. NASA, the US civilian space agency, created, owned, and operated almost every piece of equipment that was built and delivered to space. This included things like satellites, probes, and, eventually, humans. Private companies were contracted almost from the beginning, but the federal space agency had a tight grip on product development, delivery, and use. The agency was established on October 1, 1958, and by 1959 NASA had begun the first US astronaut program, the Mercury Astronaut Corps. The agency saw many advances in space activities during their early days and laid the groundwork in the US for much of the technological and economic progress we see in space today. That is not to say that private companies were not involved in the industry at all. In fact, private companies had begun to enter the space industry outside of governmental projects. Companies such as AT&T created technological leaps in the satellite market and made themselves lucrative allies in the following decades of spaceflight.
The heyday of US spaceflight came from the moment we began to send Man to the Moon in the 1960s and ended with the shuttle program in 2011. This was when spaceflight technology required rapid innovation, and private companies saw a gradual release from the grasp of governmental control throughout this era. NASA was rapidly working to send Man to the Moon and beyond, and its technological needs could no longer be met by the agency alone; thus, NASA began to bring in outside assistance for innovation and development through government contracts. NASA found companies that were innovating and creating useful materials to contract out to. However, during this era, NASA retained the rights to any technology developed for them. Private companies were heavily restricted in ownership and ability to market, but the US may not have reached the Moon without them.
Taking man into space
On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission finally took humankind to the Moon, a historic moment. It was the first time a public-private partnership in the space industry had taken humans beyond what we previously considered possible, and it would not be the last. NASA sent six more crewed missions to the Moon between 1969 and 1972 before lunar missions were officially canceled in favor of orbital shuttle missions. The shuttle program, once again built through public-private relationships, ran from April 12, 1981, to July 21, 2011. Its fleet consisted of Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor. By this time, private space companies vied to enter the new, lucrative market and gain a foothold as providers of a wide range of products and services, either to the government or to private users. It was estimated that the space industry began to grow by 20% every year after 2001, thanks to a market with potential long-term growth and profit.
Tragically, the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, which cost the lives of the crew, led to the end of the shuttle program in 2011. This disaster began an inquiry into the viability of the shuttle program; it was found that the effort to retool the shuttles, reused for more than three decades, would have taken funds from other important missions. Instead of continuing the program, NASA decided to build upon the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz test project, the first international human spaceflight program, and partner with Russia to continue to allow US astronauts to access space. US astronauts would use the Russian Soyuz for transportation while NASA developed new ways for astronauts to reach space from US soil. In 2011, NASA created the Commercial Crew Program to transition launches back to US territory. The program aimed to transition all activities not directly involved with governmental functions to nongovernmental organizations, such as rides into low Earth orbit or the International Space Station (ISS). It was created through NASA and federal support, financially and engineering-wise, for privately funded development of space flight technology. Basically, NASA would manage the astronauts and science while private companies handled the flights and other routine activities, almost like an airline, but for space. By the end of 2011, NASA had narrowed down their primary choices to four private companies: Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp, and Blue Origin. These companies were tasked with developing commercial spaceships and rockets to take astronauts back to space from US soil.
Private space success
The decade since the end of the shuttle program has seen increased governmental support, interest, and investment in the commercial space industry; mostly through well-established areas such as the satellite, infrastructure, or launch markets. In 2012, the US Senate approved $500 million as part of NASA’s budget to boost private companies’ space-related efforts. In 2014, the Department of Commerce released the Commerce Control List, which allowed private US companies to sell in the international market and loosened restrictions on the space market created by the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR). In 2016, there was a massive uptick in space-related investments and startup companies. Well-funded and idealistic entrepreneurs invested up to 2.8 billion in the space industry as they attempted to win government contracts and access to space. Now, mostly thanks to the private companies’ success and proven capability, NASA has shifted interest away from owning the rights to the equipment developed at these companies. NASA began to change focus from owning necessary equipment to effectively utilizing funds to purchase privately created goods and services while focusing most funding on scientific endeavors.
NASA worked carefully over the years to cultivate an extensive network of private contractors, such as SpaceX, who could create cost-cutting, reusable, and innovative space-related goods and services. However, individual company success in this market is mostly thanks to the US government investing in and subsidizing company endeavors, while also acting as a stable main customer. Without government assistance, most aerospace companies could not afford the massive cost or risk that is associated with the space industry. Government support also grants access to space agency archives, experts, launch sites, funding, and licensing, among others. This has been said to create a hierarchy of space business with more prominent, better-funded companies on top. However, as new policies regarding private space companies continue to emerge, more companies can enter the market. This then drives the creation of cheaper, more capable, and innovative goods and services and creates a functioning, albeit rather exclusive, market system.
The exclusivity of the market can be daunting; the space industry is rife with both risks and opportunities. Fortunately, the US has always had a robust risk-taking attitude that is linked to a culture that prizes success from risky endeavors. Progress through such ventures is seen as the epitome of hard work and dedication, something vital to the daring space industry. However, such an enormous risk would not be possible without governmental support. This type of extreme danger in an unknown sector can be daunting to stakeholders, so national contracts create a shared liability; this liability minimizes the risk to private companies, and funding, and allows federal space agencies to try and try again. As such, there was no lack of companies vying for NASA’s attention and lucrative government contracts. One such company, SpaceX, was incredibly successful in this venture. SpaceX began in 2002 and quickly became the first private company to launch and return a spacecraft to low Earth orbit and back successfully. By 2006, the company was in the running for a NASA contract; by 2008, they had one. In 2012, they became the first commercial company to dock a spacecraft with the ISS when they delivered a resupply capsule that the crew so desperately needed. That same year, the company won a contract to develop the first commercial shuttle to transport US astronauts back to space. Finally, on March 30, 2020, only eighteen years after its inception, SpaceX became the first US private company to fly Man to space.
On May 30, 2020, Demo-2 NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken flew for almost nineteen hours to the International Space Station with the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft. After the rocket lifted off from Earth, the spacecraft, nicknamed by the astronauts “Dragon Endeavour,” docked with the space station on May 31. The astronauts have tested out Crew Dragon’s onboard systems and collected data for NASA on whether the spacecraft can carry humans. Although the vehicle is fully autonomous, it has a complete control panel that the astronauts could use to test out the manual mode. Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken joined fellow NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, and their mission in the orbiting laboratory will last 110 days. With the planned reduction in Soyuz launches, the ISS would have been undermanned and reduced to having a maintenance crew instead of doing science, had SpaceX not reestablished an independent American launch capability.
Image: © SpaceX
The novelty of the launch
What is novel is not what was launched, but instead that it was a private company that designed, built, and flew the vehicle. This launch shows the ongoing transition into a new era of space travel; one that now relies more heavily on PPPs between national space agencies and privately-owned companies. This partnership allows the maintenance of a grasp on space in the era of strained budgets. However, it also makes space to become accessible by creating a market with sound incentives and decreasing costs. While it will take time for the less well-off members of society to buy rides to space, we need to believe that the day of accessible space travel will eventually come; this launch is part of that hope. This new space market will enable humans to reach and study the realm beyond our own because private companies can drive the price of space down over time through market competition. Space is a daunting challenge, but SpaceX, and other space companies, are helping to pave the way forward for future aerospace companies.
The most recent launch hosted the first US launched human-crewed mission since the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in 2011. The launch furthermore made history as the first private entity to send people into space. This demonstration of will in the face of adversity increased the company’s reputation and future business endeavors but also holds historical significance for the private sector as a whole. SpaceX proved to the world that commercial space companies could successfully partner with the public sector to send humans to space. An example of this affirmation is Virgin Galactic’s agreement with NASA, signed less than a month after the launch, which “will allow the space tourism venture to train astronauts for trips to the International Space Station.” The plan is to offer their spaceflight program and training infrastructure to NASA and other agencies by developing a “private orbital astronaut readiness program.”
Implications for the future
As reliance on private entities increases, the management and development of space activities will shift to those entities. A more significant share of power in the hands of the private sector may reduce government influence and allow more latitude to the private sector. Increased private engagement in space will bring an assortment of challenges. For example, dispersed influence has profound implications on international agreements, which are necessary for the smooth management of space. Continued space development depends on lowering the cost and increasing the accessibility of launches. This requires careful planning with consideration to other events that may be occurring near the launch site. For example, the globe-spanning airline industry must schedule and plan for launches to not have any commercial liners near the airspace. While international agreements are standard in the private sector, many treaties and alliances are equally necessary for peaceful space development. A good example is the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, which requires signatories to register objects that are put into space and accept liability for damages caused. Treaties and alliances are the purviews of nation-states. If the interests of the private sector conflict with those of the public sector, treaties and alliances will become more challenging to form and maintain. The consequences of these divergent interests range from economic to military.
Space allows for power projection and economic development on a significant scale. Hence, it shifts in influence, and increases in complexity of treaty and alliance formation will intensify successes and failures in the arena of space. Presently, wealth concentration and the influence of money and necessary technologies on governing is a concern. This will increasingly hold true for international treaties. The changes in the scale of power projection and economic capability that comes with further development of space will only escalate this effect. As private companies become more necessary to governments in their pursuit of space, they will be able to influence international treaties to a greater extent as their interests are of increasing importance. Treaties between nations regarding space will be harder to agree upon and will have more significant consequences. Therefore, balancing regulation for the good of all, and maintaining national ideals while allowing for protection of private space entities’ interests will be a challenge. It is highly likely that the Crew Dragon will continue to be used as a vehicle to send astronauts into space. That capability has the potential to give the company more say in future regulation and international agreements, causing a greater shift in the existing power structures. Whether it is SpaceX and their goal of integrating Earth and space as part of the human condition, or Blue Origin and their goal of creating an infrastructure for extraterrestrial habitation, or Virgin Galactic’s goal of creating a commercial “spaceliner” akin to airlines, any company that becomes a viable space development avenue for their host nation will see the increased influence in the agreements that countries will inevitably enact to manage space.
Ideologies associated with these companies and their host nations will also see the more significant impact. Ideology is a stabilizing force within social and power structures. As power development is associated with the growth and expansion of these management structures, it is reasonable to say that power development has been historically shown to spread the ideology. Therefore, it is fair to predict that ideological competition will accompany power development in space. With space providing a massive increase in power projection and economic development, all nations will be walking a narrower tightrope in creating compromises and competing more fiercely on the ideological level in related international legal and space-based territorial agreements.
Currently, interests, power, economy, territory, and influence are limited by the size of the Earth itself. Space is a virtually unlimited territory with resources and economic potential. It is on a scale where the economic capability of the entirety of human history before and after space development can be likened to the gap between early humans rubbing two sticks together to make fire and the entirety of the global nuclear arsenal. Resource acquisition will be revolutionized, allowing private companies and their host nation-states to obtain the materials necessary to attempt projects on a significantly larger scale. This development, as with all development in modern society, will be driven by economic gain. At present, the US is already making moves to allow for private exploitation of resources on other celestial bodies. On April 6, 2020, President Trump signed an executive order labeled “Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources” which can be quoted saying, “Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law.” Less than two months later, an American private entity has begun sending people into space. This parallel demonstrates that as private companies can effectively and profitably engage in a theatre, in this case, space, governments will move to assist in the endeavor. Private development of space will continue to expand and take an increasingly more significant role in economic progress and influence. Economic growth will, as it always has, lead to conflicts between powers. These conflicts can have spillovers in two “directions,” from disputes between private competition spilling over to their host nations, and conflicts between nations spilling over to their private companies. In both cases, it will be challenging for governments to develop procedures and regulations that will allow for healthy private sector development while mitigating future conflicts.
Many would argue that the greatest of a nation’s many responsibilities is its duty to protect its citizens. The utilization of space is a vital aspect of this pursuit. Presently, the most widespread applications of national security in space are communication and surveillance. Space allows for intelligence gathering and dissemination far beyond that of any other theater. PPPs in the space industry already contribute to the security pursuits of nations. The importance of these contributions will redouble with the further economic development that will be brought about in space as economic security is closely tied to national security. However, like surveillance and communication, economic clout is still widely expressed as soft power. It is virtually guaranteed that exercises of hard power will take place as expansion into space continues. The most powerful space-faring nations already develop and test anti-orbital installation weaponry. The ability of a country to project hard power to weaken a foreign nation’s soft power by interference in orbital installations, or directly with high or low orbital weaponry employed on foreign states, will become of greater consideration in security concerns in the future.
The complexity of pursuing national security will continue to grow far beyond the present due to these unique characteristics. In some cases, PPPs are responsible for ferrying government national security orbital installations into orbit. The SpaceX launch is demonstrative of a future with increased reliance on the private sector for matters of governmental involvement in space. Similarly, nationwide security pursuits in space will see greater PPP engagement. Therefore, it is likely that private entities have more clout over issues of national security and potentially the application of hard power. Private companies being involved in the processes of hard power projection bring about an increase in the complexity of military use. Responsibility for success and failure will be more challenging to manage and determine, in an environment where the consequences will be higher.
Some of the limiting factors in scientific development are resources, knowledge, and time. The elements that space directly affects are our resources and knowledge. With access to the resources and territory in space, technology will blossom. As private economic growth continues to fuel space development in the pursuit of economic returns, greater resources will be placed into research and development. Materials that are scarce on Earth exist in abundance in space and will allow for innovation. It is highly likely that new materials will become accessible and used to create technologies not possible with the elements available on Earth. Scientific breakthroughs will give new avenues for researchers to pursue. Access to space will allow for a more significant study of the physical laws of the universe leading researchers to develop new understanding and apply them to new technologies. The amount of available space will allow for experiments that would be risky to attempt on Earth or in its neighborhood, further advancing scientific knowledge. These aspects will all combine to have a synergistic effect on each other. While equally driven by scientific, military, political, and economic gain, greater access to space by private entities will be accompanied by exponentially rapid growth in scientific understanding, knowledge, and technological capability. Additionally, exploration will continue to spark the imagination of humanity and push us to tackle more ambitious goals.
Space is one of the few domains that unites people from all around the world, with different backgrounds, ethnicities, races, and religions, driven by the same curiosity for the unknown. Hundreds of thousands of people from various industries are working towards an interplanetary future. People from around the world can contribute by supporting the exploration of the final frontier. Whether someone is an artist, actor, architect, student, professor, etc., each person can help humanity reach for the stars in a real sense. Because public diplomacy represents an essential component of global governance, support could contribute to the ease of regulations for private companies and, therefore, to the intensification of space exploration, which would “provide benefits to all humanity.”
The NASA-SpaceX launch is relevant because it marks the first time in history when NASA sent astronauts from American soil in a private American spacecraft. This public-private partnership will hasten the change for the future of human development in space. As national agencies transition from operators to facilitators and customers, private companies have an increased ability to operate without as many restrictions. While the trend is not new, the balance in management and development of space is at a critical juncture. The SpaceX launch represents yet another historical milestone where the development of space will bring new advancements, a renewed sense of wonder, new conflicts, and new challenges associated with the logical continuation of this trend. Even with the trepidation associated, it is an exciting time for humanity when our ability to act on our potential will be proven by our deeds. We can only put forth our hard work and faith that we will be up to the challenge.
This year re-created a deep-set sense of awe and wonder for space that has not been felt so widely since humanity endeavored to send Man to the Moon. 1961 was a tremendous year for space exploration and an even better year to be working for NASA. Astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the first American and second human to reach space aboard the first human-crewed Mercury Spacecraft. Then the Space Race led to John F. Kennedy’s famous man on the Moon speech only twenty days after Shepard reached orbit. It was then that we heard the famous words, “We choose to go to the Moon this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…” This became part of a historical turning point for spaceflight and gave the nation a drive to test the boundaries of our space capabilities. It reminded humanity that we owe it to ourselves, to our countries, to continually demand more, to verify our limitations, and to reach for the stars. Now, we are entering a new era of space exploration with private companies helping space agencies lead the charge. The Dragon mission was another historical turning point for the space industry; now, private companies can look forward to new possibilities in a new framework for the space economy. However, we hope it will also be a turning point for how humankind relates to the vast expanse beyond our boundaries. Now there is more hope for accessible, affordable adventures as the market continues to evolve and, possibly, hope that humanity can continue to explore and discover the wonders of the universe.
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