The Final Frontier: A Story of Private Companies, New Players, and Cooperation

Since time immemorial we have looked to the skies in wonder: ancient civilisations saw their heroes in the stars above and, at last, in the 20th century mankind succeeded in reaching for the heavens. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to venture into the great unknown of the cosmos and, in 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot upon the alien surface of the moon. Where these men have gone, others have followed and still more will follow. Our desire, as a species, to explore the great expanses of the unknown through which no one has gone before lives on. Whereas the exploration of space, the final frontier, was largely restricted to great powers in the 20th century, the 21st century has seen the opening of alternative avenues for interstellar exploration, including private space programmes.

Image courtesy of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center © 2012 some rights reserved
Image courtesy of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center © 2012 some rights reserved

The first ‘private’ space flight was conducted in 2001, when Dennis Tito paid Space Adventures to tag along on an EP-1 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) undertaken by the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). Since then, private space endeavours have grown in both quantity and ambition. While Tito’s voyage into space was simply an addendum to a government-managed mission, companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX have been developing their own spacecraft. This drive for privatised space flights is partly due to the 2003 explosion of the space shuttle Columbia, which was taken as a sign that the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) should stop launching its own spacecraft. This opened up a market for spacecraft to supply the ISS, which has thus far been done mainly by Russian Soyuz capsules.

SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Orbital Sciences are three of the companies that have attempted to step into this vacuum, with each experiencing various setbacks. In October 2014, Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket exploded shortly after launch on a mission to resupply the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) programme, possibly due to the use of Soviet rocket engines designed in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Prior to this incident, Orbital Sciences had carried out three successful missions using the Antares rocket and claims to be able to resume missions with a new Antares rocket as soon as 2016. On 31 October 2014, just three days after the explosion of the Antares Rocket, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight, killing one pilot and leaving the other seriously injured. Virgin Galactic’s raison d’être differs from that of Orbital Sciences as it publically focuses on space tourism. Despite the tragedy of the SpaceShipTwo crash, Virgin Galactic plans to move forward with its plans to launch paying customers into space in the near future, though the previously-stated aim to start sometime in 2015 now seems unfeasible pending the investigation of the SpaceShipTwo crash. Unlike the mishaps by Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences, the setback encountered by SpaceX is comparatively minor. In January 2015, SpaceX launched a mission to resupply the ISS under NASA’s CRS programme, which succeeded. However, the secondary objective of the mission, which was to land the Falcon 9 booster on a barge off Cape Canaveral in a bid to make the rocket reusable, failed.

Despite the various degrees of failure experienced by private companies, the march towards space continues. The persistence of interest in space is of the utmost importance, as the ISS will most probably be mothballed around 2024, the date to which both the United States and Russia have promised to fund it. With that prospect looming in the not too distant future, it is promising to see private companies express continued interest in space. Private companies, such as the previously mentioned SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Orbital Sciences, have a variety of interests in space, ranging from resupplying the ISS to launching satellites and research missions to space tourism. However, private corporations are not the only entities interested in increasing their presence in the exploration of the cosmos.

In 2014, China, India, and Japan have all achieved significant advancements in their space programs. India, for example, has sent a probe into orbit around Mars, while China has landed an unmanned rover on the moon and Japan has launched a mission to rendezvous with an asteroid. These steps by nations traditionally uninvolved in the space race, which has been generally dominated by the United States and Russia, signifies a great step forwards for the world as a whole. With private companies and more nation-states developing space programs and capabilities, there is an unprecedented opportunity for peaceful technological cooperation.

Technological cooperation itself is not uncommon, but it usually focuses on defence military technologies. For example, military fighter aircraft such as the F-35 Lightning II are often developed by multiple states in cooperation, with the F-35 being developed by nine partner countries. These cooperative endeavours do seem to benefit all partner nations by allowing states to develop military technologies that would be otherwise outside of their individual capabilities, either financially or technologically. However, the benefits of such cooperation in the development of military technologies are greatly inhibited by the fact that said cooperation is largely structured around existing military alliances. This means that cooperation between world powers—those who have the greatest scientific and financial capabilities—is fairly uncommon, as it is counterintuitive for states to enter into a military-developmental partnership with a potential rival. As an example, the United States would never enter into a developmental partnership with Russia or China for, say, a main battle tank or a state of the art fighter-bomber. However, the United States has, as previously referenced, undertaken a limited partnership with Russia to maintain and operate the ISS.

This isn’t to say that peaceful technologies are inherently apolitical and, indeed, such cooperation in peaceful technological fields is often the subject of equivalent debate as military technologies. The case of peaceful nuclear technologies, though a bit detached from the current focus on space programs, is a prime example of how peaceful technologies may be feared for their ability to be appropriated for military aims. Like nuclear technologies, many of the technologies involved in contemporary space programs can be relatively easily converted to serve a military purpose. Multi-stage rockets, for example, while designed with the intention of launching capsules to the ISS, the moon, or even to Mars, could easily lead to the development of next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles. This fear, a major inhibitor to interstate cooperation, is further exacerbated by the fact that some states’ space programs, such as China’s, are directly controlled by their militaries. The fear of seemingly benevolent advances in aerospace technologies being appropriated for military means has led to some of the greater barriers in interstate cooperation on aerospace technologies. For example, NASA is banned, by the United States congress, from engaging in any cooperation with China’s space program, presumably out of fears of a relative increase in Chinese military power.

This fear of seemingly peaceful technologies being co-opted to suit military needs is, however, not the only barrier to interstate cooperation. Ambition itself, while a key motivator in man’s drive to space, prevents states or companies from cooperating with potential rivals when they feel that they can accomplish the task on their own. Russia, for example, has indicated that, when its obligations to the ISS are fulfilled in 2024, it will take the components of the ISS belonging to it and form its own national space station. Not dissimilarly, private companies are discouraged from cooperating with their competitors by copyright law and the need to stand out in a field of emerging competitors. Indeed, it is indicative of this need to stand out that Virgin Galactic is one of the more widely known commercial space programs despite having, thus far, failed to achieve space flight. Nevertheless, Virgin Galactic brands itself as ‘the world’s first commercial spaceline’, and reaps the rewards of publicity and financial backing. In a market such as this, the importance of brand recognition and the appearance of technological self-sufficiency may be more important than actual technological advancements: for a company to corner the market, it must be the sole entity with the capability to appease its customers.

Given the hurdles in the way of peaceful technological cooperation—which range from fear and suspicion to ambition and avarice—it would be easy to rule out the possibility of comprehensive and benevolent cooperation. However, it is precisely these hurdles that make cooperation in exploring the final frontier such a necessity. While our world, the planet Earth, is subjected to war after war, atrocity after atrocity, pandemic after pandemic, the stars provide us all with a look at a brighter and better future. The symbolism of space and the stars are nothing new but now, more than ever before in human history, we are poised to reach out and venture forth into the great unknown. More nations than ever before have launched space programmes and now more companies are labouring to do the same. Sure there have been setbacks, and there will always be setbacks, but mankind is now capable of taking to the stars like never before. The future is coming, and how we choose to meet it could go on to define human interactions for the remainder of the millennia. The easy choice would be to treat humanity’s venture into space as we do our own affairs on the ground, essentially acknowledging space to be an extension of our existing anarchic political system. The other option is to overcome hubris, fear, and mistrust to pool resources and cooperate in the exploration of our final frontier. This path, while challenging, would make humanity’s affairs in space a model for those on Earth, keeping our eyes on the stars for generations to come. In this sense, the burgeoning field of space exploration and travel, both private and governmental, gives us the chance to take one giant leap to the future, for all mankind.

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