Space Race Part Two: Attack of the Private Contractors

When man first touched down on the Moon, they were bearing the red, white, and blue. It was a moment in history representing the height of the Space Race - when the Soviets fought Americans for control of the final frontier. Now that we are decades out of Cold War era fights for dominance, surely we are happily cooperating for the sake of scientific exploration in the final frontier? As you may have guessed, we aren’t!

While we may no longer compete for space dominance on the same scale as the Cold War, a less overt competition is well underway; private spaceflight companies have been battling it out for years. Familiar names like Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origin routinely compete year after year for what is ultimately the very lifeblood of their companies: government contracts. These contracts are often extremely lucrative and exclusive by nature: just this year, the US Air Force awarded a $130 million contract to SpaceX. Military contracts are all well and good, but the real money often comes from NASA, which has awarded well over $1 billion in funds to SpaceX alone over the past decade for cargo and personnel deliveries into low earth orbit. The stakes are high for these companies, but then again, the stakes have always been high when strapping things to rockets and making sure they don’t explode.

So what’s the line-up of competitors on this year’s season of “So You Think You Can Launch?” The companies are varied, but the startups that tend to grab the spotlight are: SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and the Sierra Nevada Corporation. Of course, established defense contractors are never ones to miss out on cash when it’s up for grabs, so companies such as Boeing and Northrop Grumman have joined the list.

Competition in the business of spaceflight is similar to competition in any earthly industry, with a few notable exceptions. For one, the business is largely capital intensive. You can’t turn around and say to NASA: “Give me a couple months and our new launch system will be ready.” The next difference is that the business is unforgiving to failure. Unfortunately for those of us used to an environment where you can fail fast and make rapid improvement, failure in spaceflight is not an option outside of a simulator. Finally, spaceflight is extremely difficult and requires some of the best minds on the planet to make it happen-- it’s rocket science after all. It may therefore come as no surprise that the amount of R&D these companies need is astronomical (pun intended). Even if a company can meet these conditions, they may still have to compete against similar groups for launch.

Then again, people will be people, even in the pursuit of lofty ideals like expanding the reach of humanity to other worlds. In other words, there may be corporate politics and scheming involved. The most recent and striking example of such being the alleged use of an op-ed by Boeing to criticize SpaceX’s rocket procedures. It seems that Boeing used a lobbying firm to spread the piece around in an effort to edge out SpaceX for the next round of NASA contracts. All I can say is that hopefully the folks at NASA will pay more attention to the facts and figures when comparing spaceflight companies. Now more true than ever, due diligence is key.

In my opinion, I welcome competition among these companies as I think it will bring about rapid innovation in the sector unlike anything it has seen for decades. It seems to me that we are in the midst of a new Space Race: the players are different and the game may have changed, but the spirit is still there. The race might not be as grand, but it’s also far more benign. More importantly, I believe that an economically viable form of spaceflight ought to open up a path that will finally stick--no more going to the Moon only to not return for decades. I for one can’t wait to see who’s flag, or company logo, the next lunar lander bears.