In the latest sign of how new entrants are upending the space launch industry, the Air Force announced last week that an $83 million contract awarded to SpaceX to put a GPS satellite into orbit would cost the government 40 percent less than the competing bid from United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. As impressive as that is, SpaceX’s competitiveness is set to increase further after the firm achieved a milestone in the history of space exploration. After numerous failed attempts, SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of one of its rockets on a “drone ship” floating in the Atlantic Ocean. The rocket’s payload, a cargo delivery to the International Space Station (ISS), was successfully lifted into orbit.
The achievement is a first step towards the reuse of SpaceX rockets (or more precisely the first of the rocket’s two stages), which previously would be lost after a single use. The next step will be to attempt to refurbish and reuse a rocket — potentially many times over — at acceptable cost and risk. The Space Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters parachuted to sea and were recovered by ship, but they did not themselves lift payloads into orbit and were very expensive to refurbish. Another rocketry firm, Blue Origin, has also managed to safely land its rockets after launch, but those are sub-orbital vehicles not meant to reach the ISS or place satellites aloft. ULA has studied reusability but has not implemented it.
The major implication of rocket reusability – and the reason it has been so feverishly pursued — is to reduce the price of placing a payload into orbit. SpaceX’s per-launch price is reportedly $60 million, well below the $200 million charged by ULA or the $137 million charged by Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium. Rocket reuse stands to reduce SpaceX’s price even further, to perhaps just $40 million. To put that in perspective, it is about the same as it costs to stage the Oscars.
Cheaper space launches mean, quite simply, that we can do more in space. Maintaining the ISS requires numerous launches every year. Scientific launches (e.g. the New Horizons mission which returned breathtaking photos of Pluto) and national security launches (e.g. GPS and imagery satellites) add further to this total. More ambitious projects currently being planned or proposed would add further to this total, whether a manned mission to Mars, the establishment of a lunar base, or the dispatch of micro-spacecraft to our nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri. Another possible source of increased launch demand may be the private sector, not just by providing short trips to space for the mega-rich, but also by making space-based technology more accessible to entrepreneurs.
Reducing the price of space launches, in other words, opens wider possibilities for the exploration and exploitation of space. When it costs a lot to get into space, satellite builders need to increase the reliability and life span of their satellites. This in turn drives up costs. If launch costs can be decreased significantly, then satellite design can take more risk and we may see a trend toward the commoditization of spacecraft.
But those possibilities will not be open to the United States alone, nor for merely benign purposes. Already, 13 countries have space-launch capabilities, including Iran and North Korea, up from just nine in 2007. The proliferation of commercial players in the space launch business and the sharp reduction in space launch costs mean that this number can and surely will grow further still.
Because space-launch capabilities are inherently dual-use, such a development could have serious security repercussions for U.S. national security. Other states could not only match U.S. space capabilities, but field “counterspace” systems designed to neutralize them – indeed China and Russia are already doing so. Space-launch capabilities also form the foundation for intercontinental ballistic missile technology, which thus far is confined to a handful of states but whose spread could be destabilizing. So far U.S. and European launch firms occupy a dominant market role, but this preeminence cannot be taken for granted.
The United States can guard against an erosion of its space supremacy in at least three ways. The first and perhaps most urgent is to continue to invest in its own technological leadership, which has been allowed to fall by the wayside in some respects vis-à-vis rivals such as Russia and China in the national security sphere. A particular emphasis should be placed on the resiliency of space capabilities to reduce their vulnerability to attack or sabotage.
Second, satellite export controls must be constantly scrutinized to ensure they keep pace with rapid advancements in technology and the shift from a government-dominated to a more commercially-oriented space launch industry. International guidelines governing export controls and space activity may also need to be updated to keep pace with the growing number of actors active in space.
Finally, the United States can help shape the direction taken by other national space agencies by resuming its traditional role of leading cooperative international space exploration efforts. At the moment, the Mars-oriented ambitions of NASA diverge from those of key allies, who by and large have emphasized a renewed focus on the Moon as a stepping-stone into space. We should seek the attract others to cooperate and do business with us, not drive them to pursue their space ambitions independently.
Michael Singh is the managing director and Lane-Swig senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.