Could a booming private sector diversify the aerospace industry and accelerate NASA’s Artemis mission?
By Greg Pustorino
The American space program was born out of fear of the Russian Sputnik program and led to a decades long battle over the moon. This set the precedent of space as a playground for government agencies wielding large budgets only feasible for rich and powerful countries.
The ensuing slump in space exploration and commercialization following NASA’s Apollo era shows the danger that comes from government proprietorship in space. A government’s role in space is severely limited by vacillating political opinions and bureaucratic lags that hold up progress. Additionally, government programs like NASA rely solely on government funding to operate which is never a secure bet. Changing world politics will always disrupt NASA’s effectiveness, as its budget has perpetually dwarfed that of US defense. After the Apollo missions in the 1970s, NASA’s budget fell from around 4.5% of the federal budget to 1% of the federal budget, where it currently hovers.
The reliance on government funding is severely limiting and can change depending on what is politically vogue at any given time. This historic trend has also left little room for the private sector to develop a self-sufficient space industry. Solo, NASA will always be reliant on government money since its missions serve scientific exploration and do not turn a profit. On the other hand, a private space industry would be able to mitigate NASA’s costs by turning a profit and maximizing efficiency in the research spending.
Commercializing space might at first sound like hindrance to scientific exploration and discovery as it would change humanity’s incentive for looking to the stars. However, it will almost certainly have the reverse effect: it will drum up excitement within the space industry and encourage more individuals and companies to join the field. If the forming of a more robust private sector were to happen, this will concurrently further NASA’s goals of scientific discovery. NASA would profit from reduced costs on materials and facilities that can be supplied by private companies. This has already started to happen with SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing and Grumman competing to shuttle supplies to the international space station for NASA.
SpaceX is preparing for its first manned mission, in collaboration with NASA, in May of this year. This will be the first time an American astronaut travels to the ISS on an American rocket since the space shuttle was sidelined in 2011. With NASA outsourcing some of its current transportation costs it will be able to focus more on its mission of scientific discovery and exploration. NASA can use its limited budget to pursue other goals and use its savings for more ambitious programs, such as its newly minted Artemis program that plans on landing the first woman on the moon in 2024.
A balance between the public and private interests in space would ensure that NASA and other government funded organizations could continue their research, which are currently not profitable. If the private space industry pushed governments out of space entirely, then exploratory and purely scientific research could be greatly reduced since it is not economically solvent. Research, then, would not be able to profit from the reduced prices and increased infrastructure that comes with a private space industry.
President Trump recently signed an executive order called “Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources,” which gives Americans the legal right to use and commercially exploit resources in outer space. This order also allows US companies to cooperate with Artemis in its efforts to maintain human life on the moon. In 2019 NASA allowed private companies to access the ISS, the use of independent companies in the Artemis program further opens space up and will help to develop the infrastructure necessary for a flourishing private sector.
Part of the Artemis mission focuses on creating a sustainable moon base by 2028. This requires lunar mining for raw materials like ice and other minerals. President Trump’s executive order allows private companies for the first time to invest in outer space mining with the hopes of being profitable. The next few months will show what impact this has on private companies and the public’s willingness to fund space faring enterprises.
Funding remains to be an issue for the space industry since it is a very capital intensive field. In 2015, venture capital investment in the space sector increased by 253% (2052% increase from 2012), however, private capital has not found its way into the industry in substantial amounts. It is possible that we see private investment flourish in light of the executive order and NASA’s bold Artemis mission as space travel and outer space mining become more of a reality.
Governments still maintain an important role within the private space industry as they did in similar frontiers like the American West and international sea lanes. Governments need to create a legal system to defend property rights in space and provide guidelines for research, with emphasis on human health. They also need a foundation for the legal partitioning of trade and commerce, as is starting to be built by Trump’s executive order.
These guidelines will help to create a free and fair market that the private sector could utilize to expand the variety of space research and travel into new and previously unfeasible areas. Such areas include renewable energy, asteroid mining for valuable resources, and utilizing low-gravity for manufacturing and pharmaceuticals. Rather than sequential operation, the expansion of the private space industry will lead to the drive for simultaneous work and research in many new fields. □
- Image source
- Ago, M. W. Trump signs executive order to support moon mining, tap asteroid resources. Retrieved April 8, 2020, from https://www.space.com/trump-moon-mining-space-resources-executive-order.html
- Daines, G. (2019, March 14). Commercial Lunar Payload Services [Text]. Retrieved April 8, 2020, from http://www.nasa.gov/content/commercial-lunar-payload-services
- Opportunities and challenges in commercializing space privately. (n.d.). Retrieved April 8, 2020, https://social.techcrunch.com/2016/09/09/opportunities-and-challenges-in-commercializing-space-privately/
- The Economics of Space: An Industry Ready to Launch. (2019, June 5). Retrieved April 8, 2020, from https://reason.org/policy-study/the-economics-of-space/
- Warner, C. (2020, January 22). First Commercial Moon Delivery Assignments to Advance Artemis [Text]. Retrieved April 8, 2020, from http://www.nasa.gov/feature/first-commercial-moon-delivery-assignments-to-advance-artemis