By Jeremy Hutton, Policy Analyst
When man first walked on the moon 50 years ago this week, the sheer scale of the challenge of propelling a rocket into space with a handful of astronauts took the full effort of the state. It was a challenge not many countries could financially support. The US Apollo program alone employed 400,000 people (for context, this is over double the size of the current British armed forces, including reserves) and consumed over $100 billion over the programs lifetime. The Soviet space program meanwhile employed more than 1 million at its peak.
Since 1969 however, the space race has changed enormously and the intergalactic is no longer the exclusive reservation of governments. Although, almost from the beginning, private companies have had a role in space exploration (IBM, General Motors and Goodyear all supplied components to Apollo 11), that role has grown substantially since.
Where private companies were once mere suppliers, they are now leaders. It is no longer governments that are forging new paths in the cosmos, but private companies.
This fundamental shift can be attributed to two things. Firstly, the substantial scaling back of the US space program following the global financial crisis. This saw the centrepiece of the US space program, the shuttle, retired in 2011 and left NASA reliant on Russia for ISS resupply missions. The gulf in American capability that this generated gave private companies the opportunity to step up to the mark.
As such, companies that were relatively unheard of a decade ago - SpaceX and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (until recently called Orbital ATK) in particular - are now creating the spacecraft responsible for the majority of unmanned resupplies to the ISS and a range of private launches besides. SpaceX are even planning to put the first humans on mars in 2024!
But the international space industry is more than just trips to the moon, mars, and the space station, and the scaling back of the US space program is just one piece of the private sector puzzle. The other reason for the shift is technology.
The most exciting advancement in space has been massive technological improvements. What once would have required a massive satellite (the likes of which you might now find at the science museum) can now be accomplished by a device a fraction of the size. A typical modern smartphone, for example, has as much computational power as a 1990s supercomputer; which in turn was much more powerful than any available machine used in 1969. Modern devices are also overwhelmingly more energy efficient. Satellites are now lighter than they have ever been, meaning they can be launched with a much smaller rocket, or even launched in batches.
For all these reasons, it is now cheaper than ever before to put a satellite into space, possibly weighing just a few kilograms and for as little as £20,000. Private companies and even small start-ups have embraced the opportunities this presents them, leading to greater competition in the space industry.
Now, you might be reading this and wondering: what on earth does this have to do with British taxpayers?
With relatively little fuss, and almost none of the pomp and ceremony of some space programmes, Britain has emerged as one of the world’s most capable space powers. With 61 British owned/operated satellites currently in orbit, the UK is the country with the fifth most satellites currently in orbit.*
The meteoric price reduction in satellite launch costs has made potential satellite launches in the UK that much more viable, to the extent that a national satellite testing facility is being established in Oxfordshire and spaceports are being developed in Cornwall and the Scottish Highlands. This, coupled with the government ambition to see Britain gain a 10 per cent share of the global space industry by 2030, signals a significant upscale in ambition.
But there is a danger we pursue space exploration as our forefathers did 50 years ago, without recognising that the space industry has changed. With commercial incentives and new technologies, big space projects no longer require big government. One small step for man doesn’t need to be one giant leap in government spending.
Rather than chasing a vain dream of a British NASA, the government has been right to instead support commercial efforts. Backing the private sector, allowing it to continue to grow with only a small amount of public sector investment (the UK space sector currently receives below the global average of public sector income), is the best way to ensure innovation and risk taking without leaving taxpayers shouldering the burden.
The success of the British space industry and the advances which private industry has made in pushing the final frontier is to be celebrated, and a stellar example of what private companies can achieve. Our space industry will boldly go where only state efforts have gone before.
*This is based on analysis of the UCS Satellite Database, attributing shared satellites to whichever country is the bigger partner.