The new space race: Who will dominate the Earth’s outer orbit in the next decade?

The final frontier is getting ever closer; but who will get there first? And how far away are we from making it to Mars?
SpaceX Falcon Heavy
SpaceX is one of the private firms dominating space travel. Photo: Official SpaceX Photos via Flickr

The next big space race

In the 60’s it was a race to get the first man on the moon. The new space race is a bit further away. Actually, it’s 235 million kilometres further away.

NASA plans to have a man on the moon by 2033. How likely that is to happen is questionable. We reported recently about the Mars rover, which is set to launch in July 2020. The next step of the Mars exploratory missions will be to send a manned spacecraft.

The IDA Science & Technology Policy Institute has published an evaluation, reaching the conclusion that the 2033 target date is unlikely to be possible.

Space travel – the competitors

Much of space exploration is now carried out by private companies.

The three biggest space agencies are NASA in the US, Roscosmos in Russia and the European ESA. Following the cessation of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program in 2011, the only one of these agencies sending astronauts into space is Roscosmos.

In the vacuum created, private firms are rising to the challenge. We looked last week at the budgetary challenges of NASA, and it is clear that private organisations have the investment power to innovate space travel in a way that government budgets simply aren’t making a provision for.

X-59
The X-59 QueSST was built by Lockheed Martin on a contract from NASA. Photo: Konrad Małyska via Wikimedia Commons

SpaceX

Leading the way on many fronts is Elon Musks’ SpaceX. The firm is worth $33.3 billion and is contracted to provide International Space Station (ISS) resupply missions for NASA.

SpaceX has been in the news a great deal lately. The company has the ultimate aim of facilitating human life on other planets. They are currently building their 12,000 Starlink satellite constellation to beam high-speed internet to every corner of the globe.

The company are also introducing new methodologies. For example, they are testing a new anti-glare paint to prevent visibility issues caused by reflected light from their satellites. SpaceX also trialled new recovery processes to reclaim the two halves of the Falcon 9 rocket fairing as they fell away after launch.

Virgin Galactic

Another contender is Virgin, who have developed passenger space planes to make space travel commercialised. The spacecraft was developed with Burt Rutan, who won the X Prize Foundation Ansari X Prize in 2004 for affordable spaceflight.

Virgin Galactic, part of Richard Branson’s giant group of enterprises, operates alongside The Spaceship Company and Virgin Orbit. They sayour mission – to be the spaceline for Earth – means we focus on using space for good, while delivering an unparalleled customer experience‘.

Virgin spacecraft
Virgin Galactic provides commercial space flights. Image: Virgin

Orbital

Orbital Sciences Corp was a fellow NASA contractor along with SpaceX. The firm entered into a $1.9 billion contract with NASA in 2008 to provide cargo transportation services to and from the ISS. There is steep competition to win these contracts, both in terms of cost efficiencies and in demonstrating the skill and ability of their tech and engineers to dock safely with the ISS.

The company merged with Alliant Techsystems in 2014 and now trades as Orbital ATK, Inc under parent corporation Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems.

They employ 15,000 people, and design and build systems for space travel, defence and aviation. Northrop Grumman say their main products are ‘launch vehicles and related propulsion systems; missile products, subsystems and defense electronics; precision weapons, armament systems and ammunition; satellites and associated space components and services; and advanced aerospace structures.’

Outsourcing space travel

These are just some of the front-runners but by no means all of them.

Firms such as Lockheed Martin are subcontracted to engineer groundbreaking aircraft. One such example is the $247.5 million NASA contract to build a supersonic aircraft, minus the loud sonic boom.

The Lockheed Martin X-59 QueSST has been in development since 2016 and is now through to the next stages of construction.

Whoever dominates the world of space travel in 2020, it seems a sure-fire bet that it will be one of these private firms. They have the know-how, the technology and most importantly the budgets to expand our horizons far into the skies.

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