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“On behalf of the SpaceX and NASA teams, welcome back to Planet Earth. Thanks for flying SpaceX”. This quote from mission command as the Dragon crew splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, I believe are the most influential words for human space travel since Armstrong’s “one small step for man…” and a critical step in the commercial space race. Although SpaceX made this enormous step, did they start this space race, and will they continue to lead it? I think they will. No other commercial business has generated the amount of publicity and support from the public than they have. They are the only company to receive the number of critical and revolutionary contracts they have acquired from NASA and have the widest array of satellite launching services for other companies. They are the only private company to have made the advances that they have made, no others come close to the achievements and advancements in technology that have been achieved.
In this essay, I will look at how the race has and will continue and evolve into the future, as it is nowhere near over. I will also look at the often-overlooked risks and anti-competitive behaviour of SpaceX and how that affects the space race. In my findings, I will exclude companies that primarily focus on aeronautics like Boeing and Airbus or defence companies like Raytheon or Lockheed when looking at google search data and income as searches for their aircraft instead of spacecraft and their huge pay-outs from western militaries will heavily affect results and give inaccurate information when comparing them to spacecraft only companies. I will also be excluding areas where the US government may push NASA into competing against corporations as they are not privately owned and mostly outsource jobs currently.
Firstly, what is my definition of the commercial space race and briefly, what is SpaceX? I will define the commercial space race as the race between privately-owned companies to be the first one to have dominance in space and gain the upper hand over other companies in a wide array of sectors, whether that being public support, NASA contracts, broadband providing or the first to land a man on Mars. Classic corporate shenanigans, except in space and with extremely heightened risks. All this corporate warfare comes with the addition of potentially furthering the human race’s understanding, exploration, and technology in the meantime. During my research, I have discovered things that have helped me refine my definition of the commercial space race and split it into further sub-races. The race to get the most favourable NASA contract, the race to provide broadband via low orbit satellites and the Mars race. All these areas have very fierce competition, something I did not expect to be to the extent that it is. The more I researched, the more evident it became to me that the race to offer commercial flights to the public was only a very small cog in the machine of the commercial space race. But for context, what is SpaceX?
SpaceX is an aerospace company founded by Elon Musk on 6th May 2002 and is currently the leading private company in space travel and reusable rocket technology with four primary missions for human space travel. Mission Earth Orbit, this mission is focused on getting humans into orbit and drastically speeding up travel around the planet, lowering some travel times from over 10 hours to just 30 minutes. Mission Space Station, this mission is focused on getting astronauts to the International Space Station from the United States. Mission Moon, this missions focus is to return humanity to our Moon and set us bases there and gain experience for travel to Mars and beyond. Mission Mars and Beyond, this mission is their focus, to get humanity to Mars and to eventually colonise it and officially make humanity a multi-planetary species and to get humans to step foot onto another planet for the first time.
I strongly believe that SpaceX has undoubtedly generated more publicity and support than any other private space firm. Which in turn has generated more increasingly wealthy private competition. Which has then led to the emergence of a second space race, A “commercial” space race. One factor for why I believe this to be true is that (excluding companies dedicated to aeronautics, particularly Airbus and Boeing because of their dominant involvement over the airline industry and their place as the top 2 aerospace companies by revenue and therefore highest customers). SpaceX has extremely higher public engagement and interest over its competitors Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
Another factor for why I believe SpaceX has started a commercial space race is for income and money they bring in and other companies joining the race to have a part of it. Specifically, I am talking about the exclusive multi-million dollar deal they have with NASA that I am certain other companies want a piece of. Nasa is dishing out over $8billion in total to different companies. They want to launch astronauts from the USA again, not Russia, where prices have over quadrupled in the last decade and reliability is being questioned. SpaceX has grown so much, NASA has publicly stated that they don’t own or intend to own them but are a big customer: ‘We don’t want to purchase, own, and operate the hardware the way we used to. We want to be one customer of many customers in a very robust commercial marketplace in low-Earth orbit,’ Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator. In this quote, Bridenstine is seemingly encouraging a commercial space race and advancements in commercial companies in space.
The first NASA contract that SpaceX received probably opened the eyes of many in the business to how they could profit from it and to race to get more contracts and commercial offers. In September 2008, SpaceX became the first commercial space company to send a liquid-fuelled rocket into space and only 3 months later it won a NASA contract worth more than $1billion to service the ISS. This was not their first NASA contract however, the first came in 2006, SpaceX won a NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services phase 1 contract, basically a beginner version of their 2008 contract to prove that they could send cargo to the ISS ahead of the space shuttles discontinuation. NASA gave SpaceX $396million to develop the cargo configuration or the Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX themselves invested over $500 million into developing the Falcon 9 rocket to launch the dragon into space to carry out the missions they were being contracted to do more efficiently.
The point I am making is that there is a lot of competition to get these contracts. They provide very large financial boosts and help fund projects that otherwise may not have been possible. These advances have led to SpaceX becoming the 8th most valuable aerospace company at a value of roughly $50 billion, behind airliner giants Boeing and Airbus as well as highly valued defence companies and engine manufacturers. This is extremely attractive to companies wanting a piece in the commercialisation of space especially their CEO’s, who look at Elon Musk’s net worth of $87.9 billion and want to get a piece of the action of providing any service in space and hopefully getting government contracts from NASA. There are hundreds of NASA contracts, from propellants and life support services to launching and supply contracts, so, in theory, any company no matter how small can bid for a contract and enter the commercial space industry, they may be in the shadow of larger companies like SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, but they’re contributing to the commercial space race and I believe in part of why they’re contributing is because of the massive pay-outs companies like SpaceX get with a single contract.
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