Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX told reporters that “I think we are at the dawn of a new era in commercial space exploration,” at the moment a corporation managed to do what only governments had managed: sending men and women into outer space. More than that, SpaceX has pushed the technological limitations of aerospace technology to build a multi-use first stage rocket and landing on it on a drone ship at sea, cutting the costs of space travel by at least half of the original costs. According to the United Launch Alliance (ULA), they could launch a rocket into space at $225 million. SpaceX’s dragon capsule costs less than $60 million to develop and launch, and that price lowers as SpaceX reuses the Dragon capsules each time, according to Air and Space Magazine. Suddenly, the powershift in space policy moved from NASA and the ULA to a new, rising group of space entrepreneurs and board room executives, inaugurating a space race inside the United States.
The United States remains projected to maintain and increase its own lead over rivals in China and Russia. But unlike its two erstwhile rivals in space exploration, it is the private sector leading the way. NASA and its longtime private sector allies in the ULA are being left behind as businessmen like Musk and Jeff Bezos define the conversation about space through their Silicon Valley-style approach to manufacturing, and management. The seismic shift in technological innovation, caused by companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have broken ULA’s monopoly and opened opportunities for a new era in American leadership, as they become the clients of companies and governments in Europe and Asia.They are demonstrating how a new group of space entrepreneurs, called Space Czars, are defining the conversations about Outer Space, and why the intersection of foreign policy and outer space is no longer the domain of Washington policymakers.
The Vision and the Reality
The exploration of space has been an economic cornerstone of American foreign policy since 1953, when the Soviet Union sent the first man-made satellite into space. Sputnik launched one of the most extraordinary technology races of all time, and helped usher in technology like the smartphone, GPS, and other spin offs. Regarding NASA, President Dwight D. Eisenhower defined the goals of the US space program as the following:
- Fulfil the urge of man to explore individually and/or joint space operations with other countries.
- National defense against adversaries
- Enhance the prestige of the United States,
- Strengthen capacity for scientific research and innovation through Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programs.
It used to be the case that US aerospace programs was on the cutting edge of space technology, and long dominated the space scene from landing on the Moon to putting the Hubble Telescope and launching the ISS. However, the allocation of resources in the NASA budget reflect a “do everything” mindset among policymakers, leading to a long stagnation of the space program with little to inspire progress.
The symptoms of such a broad focus on outer space are in gradual shifts of focus for NASA between the Administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Looking to return a man to the Moon, President Bush laid out the Constellation Program, designed as a blueprint for the next generation vision of American space policy. It focused on developing the Ares rocket and the completion of the International Space Station, as stepping stones to returning to the Moon by 2020, and then onward to Mars. When the Obama Administration took over and the Great Recession squeezed government funding for relief programs, Obama downsized NASA’s focus to unmanned exploration, landing a man on Mars, and spurring technological innovation through STEM and public private partnerships. The slack was left to the private sector, then represented by the ULA, to fulfill the vision of Constellation. The shift led to stagnation in the industry, with ULA winning an $866 million contract to maintaining the number of satellite launches with little motivation to innovate. Reality caught up with the vision, where ULA was put on notice that such contracts will not come with such exclusivity as newer companies outcompeted Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Advancing ahead of the ULA, SpaceX and its competitors is laying the groundwork for Elon Musk’s own vision of unlocking a new “Great Age of Exploration,” which will be dominated by adventurous space companies. While SpaceX is the most well known, other groups like Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin have invested millions to create new capsules for manned exploration, rockets that land themselves, and pushing innovation beyond what major aerospace companies have achieved. The Falcon and New Shepard rockets are fulfilling the vision of Constellation, while transferring influence and power from the Washington Beltway producers to the Silicon Valley CEOs and company boards. Recognition of this economic shift came with the US Air Force awarding SpaceX the contract for launching GPS satellites, breaking a monopoly over military contracts in the commercial sector. Though substantial risk is a component of the aerospace industry, the Space Czars are demonstrating a stronger path than Washington’s old partners.
Corporations like SpaceX are creating a brand new policy arena with the future capacity to outperform and surpass all other government sponsored programs, including Beijing and Washington. If you are trying to imagine what a corporate dominated space race looks like, you need only take a look in video games and the history books. If you have played Sid Meier’s Civilization Beyond Earth, you play as large corporations set-up to colonize and manage colonies on far off planets. In some cases, they represent governments, but they are the product of international cooperation between countries, run as private entities. They are not unlike the colonial corporations that settled the Western Hemisphere during the 17th century. During the Age of Exploration, Britain and France allowed trading companies to fund expeditions to the new world and the East Indies. In so doing, many of the American colonies and early British India were run, organized, and governed by boards of merchants and traders. Not until colony corporations were unable to protect their settlements did the crown governments intervene and directly govern the colonies, as was the case in New England and India. While many claim colonization is decades away, it was also this logic that led to skepticism about SpaceX, and it maybe far closer than we think at the current rate of technological innovation.
America’s Foreign Space Policy
The Second Space Race has begun, and we need to be investing in our commercial leaders today, from new public policies to economic investments. Space policy is large and nebulous area of policy, where international law has not caught up with progress made by public-private entities like ULA and private entities alike. The ISS is a strong example, where people live and work in outer space. In his article “Lawyers in Space,” Foreign Policy author Benjamin Soloway asked a simple but complicated legal question: “What happens when someone is murdered in space?” The question of who has jurisdiction in international law is part of the broader implications of interplanetary commerce, settlement, and governance. If America’s Space Czars develop the technologies to ensure travel to Mars and a return to the Moon, the US needs to make space affairs a paramount part of its foreign policy. We need to expand joint cooperation in space ventures, and protect space from being cordoned into one country’s sovereign sphere of influence or another’s. That means building a policy that keeps American economic values (freedom of trade, navigation, protection of property) in place in Outer Space and the means to implement it.
Domestically, we need to implement a Keynesian approach to economic investment that creates jobs and gives people reason to believe in space entrepreneurship. Reducing regulatory hurdles to launches, providing funds for spaceports and other infrastructure projects would advance the nation’s commitment to leadership in Space. For Congress, such investments should include workforce development assistance, especially for Rustbelt regions languishing from the loss of manufacturing jobs. For these cases, we need programs like Free Trade Assistance and newer programs focused on STEM education in community colleges for electronics and non-engineering intensive jobs. The Silicon Valley models of business perfected by SpaceX can be models for how to build new manufacturing economies of scale in Rustbelt communities. Not only can we discard dependence on Russian Soyuz rockets, we can also roll back years of lost jobs to free trade and foreign competition, and uplift our workforce without requiring everyone to go to a four year college.
The implementation of this new space policy relies also on what role NASA and other federal bodies should be doing. Future administrations should create a government Czar who coordinates the involved departments and offices to implement the policy in a coordinated manner. As seen in the Intelligence Community, these public figures have brought attention to issues and solutions to varying challenges facing the country. Issues prevalent to outer space include private space travel, debris, scientific missions, etc. Having that centralized figure, whether from NASA or elsewhere, to build stronger relationships with Space Czars and other stakeholders will find opportunities for growth and create a roadmap for space travel and permanent settlement on bodies like the Moon.