The end of the Cold War caused a number of major changes in the space industry. Since the end of the US-Soviet competition, the United States and Russia have combined forces to create a joint orbital outpost. China, Japan and Europe have also noticeably strengthened their positions as new space players. In addition, the first private companies have begun to appear on the market, setting a very ambitious goal – to create their own launch vehicles.

The birth of the private space sector

Strictly speaking, private companies have been present in the space industry practically from its inception. For example, aerospace giants like Lockheed-Martin and Boeing have regularly received large orders for the manufacture of various rockets, and hundreds of different firms from all over America worked on the Apollo program. But this was work done under government contracts rather than by private initiative.

It took several decades before private companies tried to establish themselves as a force in space in their own right. One of the pioneers was the Orbital Sciences Corporation, which introduced the Pegasus solid-propellant rocket in 1990. The Pegasus was not just the first orbital launch vehicle developed with private funds (though it did receive some support from NASA), but also the first (and until recently only) air-launched orbital vehicle. On the other hand, due to its small 443 kg carrying capacity, the Pegasus rocket was not yet competitive with traditional space rockets.

An Orbital Sciences Corporation Pegasus XL rocket is displayed in an area of the hangar that also hosts a variety of missiles. (credit: J. Foust)
An Orbital Sciences Corporation Pegasus XL rocket is displayed in an area of the hangar that also hosts a variety of missiles. (credit: J. Foust)

In the years that followed, several more businesses decided to challenge the established order of space launches. In 1995, Space Services Inc. attempted an orbital launch of its Conestoga 1620 rocket, created from the second stages of the Minuteman rocket. Unfortunately, the rocket ended up exploding, and when it became unable to continue funding its operations, the company soon had to fold.

Another, much more ambitious attempt was made by the banker Andrew Beal, who set the goal of creating an affordable heavy carrier that could significantly reduce the cost of launching a payload into space. This was how Beal Aerospace was born in 1997. Within a couple of years, the company employed 200 people, and it was able to make very good progress in the development of rocket engines. However, it was never able to stage a launch attempt, both because of low demand for the company’s rocket, and because of NASA’s decision to allocate funding to competing projects at Lockheed and Boeing. As a result, Beal Aerospace also had to close its doors in 2000. 

A turning point occurred in the mid-2000s with the Columbia shuttle tragedy. After the disaster, which killed all seven astronauts aboard, American authorities decided to stop operating reusable spacecraft, which raised the question of how to keep supplying the ISS. In 2006, NASA initiated the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program to support private companies developing their own vehicles to deliver cargo into orbit. One of the winners of the first stage of the program was Elon Musk’s SpaceX, little-known at the time, which was working on the creation of the Falcon 1 carrier. 

The NASA contract provided SpaceX’s first big break. At that time, few investors believed in the company, and it was desperate for funding. The situation was further aggravated by the failure of the first three Falcon 1 launch attempts. The success of the fourth launch came just in time; had it failed, SpaceX simply wouldn’t have had the money to try again. In September 2008, the Falcon 1 became the first private liquid-propellant rocket to successfully launch a payload into low-Earth orbit, and by December that year, SpaceX received a new contract from NASA for twelve missions to supply the ISS.

Falcon 1 rocket, source:
Falcon 1 rocket, source:

After that, SpaceX focused all its efforts on building its more powerful Falcon 9 rocket, the main feature of which was to have a reusable first stage. Despite skepticism from most experts and a number of failures at the initial stages of development, the company managed over time to find its way. In 2015, SpaceX managed to land the first stage of the Falcon 9 for the first time. Now such operations have become routine, and many countries and companies are working on creating their own carriers with a reusable first stage.

There is much to say about SpaceX’s subsequent achievements, but the numbers speak for themselves. In 2015, SpaceX carried out 7 space launches, while its main American competitors United Launch Alliance (a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin) had 12 launches. In 2017, SpaceX carried out 18 launches, while ULA had only seven. In 2020, this ratio jumped to 25 for SpaceX to six for ULA (despite the consequences of the pandemic). In just a couple of years, Elon Musk’s company destroyed the seemingly unshakable ULA monopoly on the American launch market. 

Whole books and dissertations have been devoted to the reasons for SpaceX’s phenomenal success. But put simply, it can be reduced to a few main factors. The first is SpaceX’s flexible approach to the creation of rockets and their lack of fear of public failure. Modern aerospace giants are accustomed to developing new technology using computer simulations and only then creating prototypes. It took a long time, but in the absence of similarly-minded competitors, SpaceX could afford to take its time. 

SpaceX has taken an iterative approach in which the engineering solutions used in the design of their rocket are directly tested by conducting physical tests on prototypes. This does mean that the company’s engineers have to deal with a lot of failures and accidents, but it has also allowed them to get the maximum amount of valuable information possible in a short period of time, to promptly make necessary changes to the design, and then to re-test it in practice. 

It was thanks to this that SpaceX was able to bring the Falcon 9 to market in a relatively short time. The advantage of this approach was even more evident in the development of the Crew Dragon. While it’s true that one of the ships exploded during ground tests, SpaceX was able to quickly make the necessary technical adjustments, and to date, Crew Dragon has already completed four successful manned flights. Their competitors at Boeing, however, have spent far more money and still failed to send a single astronaut into orbit.

Another major reason for SpaceX’s dominance has been its initial focus on reusability and making its production as economical as possible. This isn’t just about their reusable first stage; they’re also reusing Falcon 9 nose cones and Dragon capsules. This allows the company to offer much lower start-up prices than its main competitors, while still making a solid profit.

Finally, there was an important role played by Elon Musk’s willingness to use all available legal means to achieve his company’s goals. While Beal Aerospace decided to give up their business, Musk was not afraid to appeal against NASA’s initial decision to give a vital contract under the COTS program to another company without competition. In the end, he managed to force NASA to reconsider, which actually saved SpaceX.

Small Rocket Market

SpaceX’s success has been an important factor in creating another segment of the aerospace market: small carrier rockets designed to launch small (under 2000 kg) cargo into near-earth orbit.

Until recently, small carriers did not appear to be commercially viable. However, the digital revolution and the emergence of a standardized satellite platform, Cubsat, have fundamentally changed the rules of the game. It turns out that it is possible to build a small and relatively inexpensive spacecraft weighing dozens of kilograms which are able to perform the same functions as a large satellite that costs millions of dollars. This has led many companies to develop satellite constellation projects for a variety of specialized tasks, from radar surveys of the earth’s surface to tracking traffic flows. 

But how do we put small satellites into orbit? Of course, you can use a conventional launch vehicle like Ariane 5, Atlas V, or the Falcon 9. However, in this case, the cost of launching will negate all the savings of using a small, cheap cubesat. Launching alongside other cargo on bigger rockets is not always a panacea either, since not all launchers of larger rockets will agree to take on extra cargo. Even when it is possible to find an available launch, the waiting period for the launch can drag on for many years, after which the client may simply no longer need to send cargo into orbit. Another significant disadvantage of this scheme is that when launching on someone else’s craft, the choice of an orbit is limited to that of the main cargo. 

All this has created the need for a cheap, small carrier capable of quickly launching small satellites into orbit. SpaceX has clearly shown that the private sector is quite capable of building a competitive rocket from scratch and then fighting for (and winning) market share on equal terms with aerospace giants. This combination of factors has triggered a huge boom; since the early 2010s, numerous aerospace startups have begun to appear around the world, starting to create their own small carriers. 

So far, the most successful in this field has been achieved by the New Zealand company Rocket Lab. Its Electron rocket has already completed a number of launches with cargo from both private customers and NASA contracts. However, so far, the company hasn’t had entirely smooth sailing, with three of its 21 Electron launches ending in the loss of the rocket. This is a fairly high failure rate by modern standards.

When it comes to Rocket Lab’s main competitors, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket has had two successful missions and one failure so far. Astra Space made four attempts at orbital launch, and only the last was successful.

The American company Firefly Aerospace stands out on this list. While all of the other companies mentioned have created launch vehicles designed to put a few hundred kilograms of cargo into low orbit, Firefly works with larger payloads. The Alpha rocket developed by Firefly’s engineers is capable of delivering up to 1000 kg into low Earth orbit.

Firefly Alpha rocket
Firefly Alpha rocket

So far, Firefly has had one launch of its Alpha rocket. Due to a malfunction in one of the engines, engineers had to abort the flight about 10km in. But it’s worth noting that no small carriers so far have managed to reach orbit on their first attempt. Moreover, during its initial launch, Alpha managed to go through a number of important stages and demonstrate the reliability of its carrier’s main systems and components. All this gives a good chance that the next launch will be successful.

A new space race?

Despite the meteoric rise of the private sector in space, we should not forget that states will continue to play a significant role in space for a long time to come. Moreover, according to some experts, we are already witnessing the start of a new major space race, this time between the United States and China.

In contrast to the clear ideological character of the 20th century’s space race, the new confrontation has been even more about proving which country is more powerful, rather than which country is more ideologically right. In recent years, China has taken many steps to build up its military presence in space. The Celestial Empire has successfully deployed its own satellite navigation system and is actively launching numerous reconnaissance satellites into orbit, as well as missile warning systems. In 2018, China passed an important symbolic benchmark by completing more space launches than the United States for the first time. 

Moreover, China is also working very actively to develop anti-satellite capabilities. Back in 2007, China successfully tested an anti-satellite missile, clearly demonstrating its military potential.

The Americans, on the other hand, are trying with all their might to maintain their leading position in space. The Pentagon has been actively using the “Chinese threat” factor in order to lobby for various expensive projects to upgrade spacecraft constellations and develop anti-satellite weapons systems. Another measure was the creation in 2019 of the US Space Force, a new type of armed service designed to carry out and coordinate military operations in space.

The US-China confrontation is gradually drawing other powers into its orbit. This includes Russia, which in recent years has invested heavily in the creation of space weapons and surveillance systems, as well as India, which tested an anti-satellite missile in 2019. Britain and France are also trying to keep up and are investing in military space capabilities.

It is possible that the moon could become a new arena of space confrontation. Both the United States and China have plans to gain mastery of our planet’s biggest satellite and even create permanent bases on it. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we’re going to see weapons on the moon any time soon, and the moon currently doesn’t have any military value. But the competition generated by competition for the moon’s surface could certainly add fuel to the flames of the 21st Century’s space race. In the medium term, however, this struggle of superpowers can significantly accelerate the development of space technologies and increase the pace of space exploration.