New Players. New Rockets. New Space Race.
We are in the midst of a new space race. What was once a competition between countries is now a rivalry amongst companies.
Over 40 years ago the Russia and USA went toe to toe in a race to reach the moon. Today, SpaceX, Virgin, and Blue Origin battle to fill the sky with satellites and astronauts.
The new space race will be defined by perseverance and the threshold of technology. Many of these missions have never been done before, and while all share the common goal of reaching space, each have nuances in their vision.
These are the dreamers of our time on an epic voyage through the cosmos.
Current State of Space Exploration
In the past decade, the concept of reusable rockets has made space travel more financially viable than ever before. This came at a good time, as the world is ravenous for connectivity and consequently, satellites. The question now is how to go about peppering the stars with advanced state-of-the-art satellites.
But while some dream of unbridled WiFi, other missions start closer to home. For example, Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic plan to start space travel here on Earth with virtual reality. The immersive experience will prepare people for hurtling through the atmosphere for fun.
Ruler of Dubai
A more ambitious initiative is terraforming the surface of Mars, an endeavour some believe will take a global effort.
There are not many people who are more invested in terraforming Mars than Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. He is the vice president and prime minister of the UAE, ruler of Dubai, and advocate of the Emirates Space Program.
He is also a billionaire.
His empire is built on wealth from oil, a fact he would like to change. Maktoum wants to diversify his country’s GDP, and the science and technology sector are a priority for him.
Maktoum’s vision for space exploration is twofold: colonize Mars and invigorate STEM disciplines in the UAE. The project, which is known as Mars 2117, incorporates many of the world’s leading research and conceptual technologies. Lab-grown proteins, 3D printing, and complete sustainability are some of the proposed solutions to many of the problems Mars dwelling provides.
Maktoum has hedged his vision, ensuring success as the only outcome. If the lofty goals of creating a civilization on Mars are not met, Maktoum will still have increased the opportunity for his country by developing its science and technology industry.
The ruler of Dubai will need rockets if he wants to make it to the Martian surface. An investment of $380 million in Virgin Galactic gives him a 38 percent share of the space exploration company owned by another billionaire jet fuel junkie—Richard Branson.
While this investment works to develop rockets for the UAE, the country is aiming to develop an in-house satellite manufacturing facility. The LA Times shared that the first Mars mission will be to “send an unmanned weather probe called Hope to Mars in time to mark the nation’s 50th birthday in 2021.”
Success will be tiered for the Emirates Space Program. The century-long goal of colonizing Mars may be lofty, but developing a thriving space program in the UAE is attainable.
Elon Musk and SpaceX
The world needs satellite technology, which creates a global demand for STEM-educated employees. That said, colonizing Mars is not something Maktoum or Elon Musk is willing to walk away from.
Musk is the SpaceX commander, and sending humans to Mars is one of the central goals for the company. Musk’s vision is rooted in altruism: he wants to give the human race the best chance for future survival, and he believes colonizing Mars is humanity’s best option.
As with many technological advancements, their creation can provide multiple benefits. Musk’s reusable rockets are not only indispensable in the race to the fourth rock from the sun, but they can also serve purposes closer to home.
Insanely quick global transport will be available with the development of the BFR, a rocket Musk thinks will earn him interplanetary success. The BFR totes the ability to shuttle a person to any part of the world in about 30 minutes.
Another one of his goals is the new space race itself. Musk is in full support of competition in the space industry and believes it will help reinvigorate the world’s love for space exploration.
With 18 rockets blasting off into the frictionless abyss in 2017, SpaceX has been a busy company. And, with the success of the Falcon Heavy launch that sent a cherry red Tesla Roadster into space, Musk is ready to go after the red planet.
According to CNN, plans to reach the martian surface with the BFR are now set as early as 2022 and are intended to carry cargo. This will be the first step in manned missions where people may visit Mars for the first time in history.
Although SpaceX rockets have proven to be successful thus far, the challenges of interplanetary exploration are insurmountable. A million things can go wrong that would be catastrophic to the mission.
A manned Mars mission has also never been done before so there is no playbook to follow here—this is uncharted territory, literally. But if Musk has shown us anything, it’s to never count him out. As it stands, he has the potential to eclipse all other space programs.
If all goes to plan, Mars will become a land of commerce. Life on Mars will be a free market and companies will have the opportunity to provide product and services there as they do on Earth. The only question is, will McDonald’s quarter pounder still weigh a quarter pound?
Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic
Not many have been in the new space race longer than Sir Richard Branson; the billionaire has been in pursuit of space flight tourism since 2004. Branson and his Virgin Galactic team intend to launch passengers into space to experience the zero gravity effects that lie outside our atmosphere.
He’s using the success of SpaceX and the Falcon Heavy rocket as motivation and, “has admitted he wants to ‘upstage’ space rival Elon Musk.” Branson has also been open about his envy of SpaceX and has set space travel goals for Virgin Galactic, goals which will add jet fuel to the new space race fire.
Branson is in a unique position when it comes to challenges. Public opinion has been unkind to his ascent to the stars after a fatal crash made Virgin Galactic rethink its vision. But Branson has confidence his team can pull it off and become the frontrunner in the new space race.
Challenges will come in the form of logistics rather than market demand for space tourism. Virgin Galactic already has a waiting list with hundreds of people willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to blast off into orbit.
Will Richard Branson succeed in his space flight tourism goal? That’s a tough call. His quickly approaching deadline is yet to be seen as a gift or a curse. The deadline may motivate his team to strap in and get to work, making his company the first to send people to space as a tourism adventure. The deadline may also force important details to go overlooked, and when you're dealing with space travel, all details are important details. This next billionaire knows about specifics as his supply chain and business acumen has now lead him to reach for the stars.
Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin
Busy bee Jeff Bezos has been occupied with becoming the world’s richest person. His company, Amazon, casts a large shadow from which other companies struggle to outshine.
A less publicized company held by the king of e-commerce is Blue Origin, which has a very different purpose. Bezos is looking to excel in the space industry with transport to Mars, orbital satellites, and human spaceflight. The company’s vision is to encourage the establishment of millions of people living and working in space—which makes sense if we will be filling the sky with hardware.
Blue Origin is still in the infancy of its mission. Its current rocket, the New Shepard, is still going through testing phases and a conceptual model, the New Glenn, won’t be constructed for a few years. The new Shepard is showing promise, however, and has exceeded expectations of the Blue Origin team.
The biggest challenge for the company is the availability of an adequate launch site. Blue Origin currently operates out of the Kennedy Space Center, a cutting-edge technology-equipped facility that covers additive manufacturing, advanced robotics, and automation. The issue for Blue Origin lies in its inability to alter existing structures to better suit the needs of the team.
The Kennedy Space Center has a policy which limits the work that can be done on the facility when a launch is in the near future. This policy reduces the risk of construction mistakes, like an electrical shortage, that would postpone a successful rocket launch. The rule is needed, but it also prevents Bezos and his team from further developing their rocket program.
Aside from policy, the frequency of rocket launches from the Kennedy Space Center has been on the rise thanks to Elon Musk and SpaceX. Now, the highly skilled team at Blue Origin must wait patiently to develop new launch systems for reusable rockets as their competition advances its space program.
Success comes incrementally for Blue Origin, but there have been smaller, tangible wins. Bezos and his rocket team have found demand for their current program among researchers, educators, and marketers have shown an interest in becoming customers of the space program. It's short-term goal-oriented strategy looks to pay off dividends over his competitors' century-long plans. The team is resourceful by nature and focused on turning a profit now rather than years or even decades in the future.
Space Industry Challenges
The space industry as a whole has challenges of its own. A workforce study found that 67 percent of employees leave their place of employment in less than five years. When a company has a 100-year vision of success, they need employees to stick around and build out the dream.
The space industry is still a very male-dominated sector and has yet to see the population of female engineers take off. Recruiting and retaining women employees will grow and diversify the workforce, but at the moment, it could be holding progress back.
The new space race may give this industry a platform to provide the youth with some much needed jet fuel to propel the next generation into orbit. Until then, the heavy lifting is being done by a small coalition of billionaires with visions of grandeur.
What Does This Mean for the Future?
It will be difficult to call a decisive winner in the new space race as each individual, and their organization, has slightly different goals. Virgin Galactic wants to send tourists to space, while SpaceX has its focus on the red planet. Maktoum wants to inspire and diversify his country and Blue Origin is looking to set up interstellar workstations.
All these goals fit under the umbrella of space travel, and every step forward from one party means overall progress for everyone. The collective effort from space fanatics is by all measures a good thing—breeding healthy competition that acts as a catalyst for innovation and progress.
And, when cosmic polymaths piece it all together, the rest of us will wonder: what new movie sci-fi storylines will be playing on the way to Mars?