We might not give it much thought, but the ability to place satellites into space has changed the way we live our lives in so many ways. From navigating our way by car, to ordering delivery services online, to checking the weather, all of this is made possible by human access to space.
Until relatively recently, access to space has been the realm of only a handful of governments worldwide, namely the US, Russia, China, the European Union, Japan and India.
But with the arrival of American-based aerospace company SpaceX, this has changed.
Not only has SpaceX proven it was possible for private companies to enter into this once exclusive club, SpaceX has developed a business model and technology that is dropping the cost for accessing space through the floor.
SpaceX has begun what is essentially a new space race. It is one where governments and companies around the globe now rush to utilize modern technology to cash in the growing demand lowering costs are driving.
SpaceX has run circles around traditional US aerospace contractors like Boeing, Lockheed and their combined United Launch Alliance (ULA).
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket features a reusable first stage that can be used up to 10 times with some versions already having flown 6 missions. This reusability has made SpaceX highly competitive against traditional contractors who essentially throw out their entire launch system for each and every flight.
SpaceX’s cost effective services and the company’s incredible pace of innovation has spurred US aerospace in ways ULA could never have done. In fact, SpaceX is being considered for US government projects through NASA once originally reserved only for America’s older aerospace monopolies.
While it seems clear that for companies like ULA to survive they will have to rethink the way they do business – there seems little signs that this is going to happen any time soon. However, abroad, many are already taking note and preparing to follow SpaceX’s example.
Russia’s state corporation for spaceflight, Roscosmos, has depended on its Soyuz launch system for decades. While the original design dates back to the 1950s it has undergone extensive upgrades over the years. It has reliably provided uninterrupted human spaceflight services to the International Space Station for 20 years, even transporting US astronauts for years after the space shuttle program was cancelled and before SpaceX’s crewed Dragon capsule came into service just this year.
However, like virtually all other launch vehicles, Soyuz is not reusable. In order to remain competitive, Roscosmos announced the development of the Amur launch system. Like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Amur will feature a reusable first stage that will return to Earth under the power of its own rockets, landing with deployable legs. The Amur rocket is expected to be operational by 2026 according to Space.com.
Amur should allow Roscosmos to not only provide reliable and cheaper access to space than its existing Soyuz launch system, but the development and perfection of Amur will likely allow Roscosmos to keep pace with other companies like SpaceX as innovation across human spaceflight capabilities collectively accelerates.
China is among three nations able to place people into orbit. Its Long March rocket family is able to reliably meet China’s needs in placing commercial and defense satellites into orbit.
China continues investing in the development of not only its launch vehicles but also its launch infrastructure. This is to address many issues including the current and undesirable necessity for China to launch rockets over populated areas and evacuate communities ahead of time to avoid casualties when expended rocket stages crash to the ground.
China’s launch cadence, or the number of launches, this year has outnumbered those from the US and this trend is likely to continue as China continues expanding its space launch capabilities.
While China is known for its many state enterprises and the centralized nature of its economy, China in fact hosts several small private space launch companies as well.
One of them, iSpace, successfully reached orbit mid last year with its Hyperbola-1 launch vehicle Space News would report.
This private Chinese space company is also working on reusability for its rockets and has been testing first stage systems that can take off and land under their own power much like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 does and how Roscosmos’ Amur is expected to do in the near future.
Like SpaceX in the US, China’s private space companies also work with and receive funding from the government giving them a better chance at success.
The powerful combination of China’s state spaceflight program and the growth of private companies across the country at a point in time where China is already outpacing the US in launches serves as another metric of China’s rise not only economically but in terms of cutting edge technology as well.
Cooperation, Competition or Conflict?
It’s no secret that the US is taking its waning power and influence globally very hard. The creation of its “Space Force” seemed directed at both Russia and China. And while NASA as an institution within the US government has enjoyed and appears to genuinely desire to collaborate with both nations, the US Congress who funds NASA has made cooperation with China virtually impossible and continued cooperation with Russia – which until recently enjoyed significant support in both countries – much more complicated and difficult.
The US has set conditions to cut off Russian aerospace suppliers from US companies that have for decades used Russian rocket engines and other systems. NASA’s upcoming Lunar Gateway was originally envisioned to include Russia in the same role as Russia served in the construction of the International Space Station. Yet more recently, the conditions have been changed to more or less exclude Russia.
For the US who struggles to keep ahead of Russia and is now falling behind China, this recent move to cut off greater cooperation with both seems destined to only drive Russia and China (and many others) together and isolate the US.
The fact that the US government’s traditional partners including ULA’s Boeing and Lockheed Martin themselves face stiff competition from SpaceX, a company that may in the future desire to work in some capacity with foreign aerospace programs and companies, could mean that in the intermediate future this can change.
Until that more hopeful future takes shape, we are likely going to see this new space race reflect in orbit the same great power competition taking place down below. For the US and the circle of special interests that currently drive foreign and domestic policy, its growing misfortunes on Earth are unlikely to translate into greater success up above.
And if the original space race was an indicator of American and Soviet power and eventually America’s superiority, this current space race is surely a metric we should and will keep an eye on closely.
Ulson Gunnar, a New York-based geopolitical analyst and writer especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.