The future of spaceflight depends on a private-public consortium

Earlier today, Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos made a short journey to space, in the first crewed flight of his rocket ship, New Shepard. They travelled in a capsule with the biggest windows flown in space, offering stunning views of the Earth. New Shepard, built by Bezos’ company Blue Origin, is designed to serve the burgeoning market for space tourism.

This comes just a week after Virgin Galactic successfully completed its first fully crewed test flight into suborbital space. The spacecraft, VSS Unity, carried Virgin’s founder Sir Richard Branson and three team members of Virgin Galactic to just below the Kármán line – a broadly defined boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. 

The mission represented a major milestone in the commercial space race and for Virgin a significant step towards reaching its goal of launching a commercial spaceflight service next year.

The mission has also inspired a flurry of criticism from those arguing that a ‘billionaire space race’ is never an optimal use of earthly resources.

However, this is surely not the right lens through which to view such achievements. Even if space tourism never amounts to anything more than a niche market, the technological innovations of manned spaceflight have the potential to benefit the whole of humanity for generations to come. 

History is filled with explorers and inventors who risked their lives and staked their reputations on experimental technologies, making contributions to society not fully recognised until centuries later. Indeed, when Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set out on his first voyage overseas, there were those on the shore who believed the timber for his fleet would be better used as firewood. 

There is often a long gap between discovery and payoff. It took decades for automobiles or airplanes to become more than a pastime of the wealthy. It will be the same with spaceflight, which in due course will expand the limits of human adventure once more.   

Such private sector investment should be celebrated for inspiring competition and innovation, helping to thrust us towards the stars – but overreliance on shareholders threatens to become the industry’ pitfall. Free markets are immensely powerful paradigms for progress – but can suffer from the need to make decisions according to questions of profit, rather than values and culture. 

The pursuit of spaceflight both embodies and inspires a set of aspirational values. Our thoughts might turn to the people who built the Great Pyramids in Egypt, or terraformed arid land into rice fields over centuries. These early innovators knew they would be long dead before their work was finished, but persevered with the conviction that their great-grandchildren would lay the final stones or plant the first seeds. We must not lose that kind of inter-generational thinking today. A healthy society requires a contract to be honoured between the dead, the living and the unborn. 

The missing factor in commercial spaceflight could be a private consortium, or public-private partnership, encompassing sufficiently wide-ranging mutual interests as to warrant risky investments across key projects for the future of humanity, such as asteroid mining, helium harvesting, and Martian terraforming.  

Offering a practical example of what this partnership could look like, NASA has put private contracts up for grabs as part of its ‘Artemis Project’ to return to the moon before the end of the decade. The US government is also expected to spend upwards of USD 68 billion by 2025 towards establishing a permanent presence on the moon. 

This has resulted in an intense battle between Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and United Launch Alliance (a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin), for government spaceflight contracts. There are also calls for satellite launches and freighters carrying crew and payloads to the Gateway, a moon-orbiting outpost from which surface missions will be staged. 

The station will “rely on power and propulsion technology that has never before been used,” much of which will be researched and developed in joint collaboration with international universities, private labs, as well as national programmes.  

Government resources have been, and will continue to be, an important part of space exploration. Given the scale of the projects modern science is undertaking, it will be hard for humans to advance without the kind of funding that only governments can muster. But that kind of spending can go even further in partnership with private institutions that bring their own unique strengths to the table.

The private sector can teach governments much about efficiency and agile growth, and their dependence on market forces can be mitigated or even removed entirely by state-led efforts to remove barriers to market entry.

The advantage of government space programs is a scale no private entity can match. But by working together, the continuous competitive pressures will ensure we go a little farther, a little faster, a little more comfortably. If humanity is eventually going to the stars, public-private partnerships will be an essential part of how future generations will get there.

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