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Reaching for the stars: a guide to the new space race

Space exploration is front page news. But today's space race differs in focus and kind from anything humankind has known before.

The spectacle of the world’s richest man, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and a well-known UK entrepreneur/ billionaire, Richard Branson, in a race to space has re-ignited the public imagination and conversation about travel among the stars.

This urge to inhabit space is an old one. Recall the earliest astronomies, the legacy of Stonehenge and variations on the theme across the world. It’s over half a century since humans walked on the moon. But today’s space race differs in focus and kind. Beyond the duelling billionaires and their rockets there is a bigger story about humankind finally having the potential to bring space exploration and use into our everyday orbit. This possibility provokes big questions.

Will declining launch costs, advances in technology and rising public sector interest position space exploration as the next trillion-dollar industry? How can agencies and governments collaborate with private stakeholders to accelerate growth and inclusiveness of the space sector? Will space be able to help provide answers to Earth’s most pressing challenges of climate change and sustainability?  

Our Oxford Space Initiative research and teaching at the University of Oxford seeks to answer some of these questions and to build a forum for sustained discussion of both a new generation of analytic and policy questions, and also a venue to re-engage older questions. Our early work has identified basic changes in the forms and funding of space exploration in these first decades of the new race for space.

1. In recent years, we find a step change in the kind of people and organisations seeking to occupy space. No longer are government agencies and large aerospace and defence groups leading space exploration directly or even on their own. A wide variety of corporations and ventures are joining that work. SpaceX, the space firm founded by maverick US entrepreneur Elon Musk, has jump-started a new generation of ventures, aspirations, and funding sources. SpaceX has pioneered core innovations in launching rockets and launch capacity, reducing those costs and making possible ‘routine’ launch successes and failures where we learn how to do better.

The costs of space travel are now calculable, making it within reach of private consumers, albeit very wealthy ones. The development of reusable rockets, especially, has massive, cumulative implications. The arrival of private funding in space innovation has triggered enormous interest in venture capital, with a dozen niche firms and scores of practices in established VC firms. Private investment in space companies in 2020 set a new annual record of $8.9 billion, according to a report from New York-based firm Space Capital. The revenue generated by the global space industry may increase to more than $1trillion by 2040, up from $350bn currently, according to estimates from US investment bank Morgan Stanley.

2. Investors are not the only stakeholders attracted by the emerging global space sector. We observe a growing number of space startups, incumbent corporations from adjacent sectors, universities, and focussed large-scale investments in frontier technologies such Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning Robotics, and Quantum Computing aimed at solving challenges related to working in space. But the sector also includes increased government attention, with a score of national space agencies founded in recent years, renewed investments in national and regional space infrastructure, and new governance and financial instruments designed by multilateral institutions.

These shifts are accompanied also by new forms of multi-stakeholder collaboration, resulting in a space sector that reflects the familiar strategy dynamics of terrestrial industries - including rivalries between incumbents and challengers, high rates of mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, and cross-sector collaborations - and the governance challenges that result from these open strategy and innovation efforts.

3. These changing opportunities and demands provoke a new era of space governance. On a national level, governments or agencies willing to enable an inclusive growth of their national space sector, are required to build capacity to orchestrate these wide ecosystems of stakeholders. A government 'ecosystem as a service' approach, requires agility in adapting regulatory frameworks, brokering relations between entrepreneurs, national strategic agendas, private capital, developing new education curricula, to name but a few activities.

On the international level, governments and other agencies will also need to acquire the competencies required to develop new accords and agreements to solve specific new challenges, for example space debris mitigation or the current work of the Artemis accords. They must also focus on the need to put in place broader rules of engagement. Worth noting here are the challenges and solutions foregrounded in the work of Nobel-prize winner Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom’s work on ‘governance of the commons’ urgently challenges the language of ‘space as a public good’ and re-imagines questions of sovereignty, risk, and stewardship.

4. Success in making space ‘accessible’ has broader implications and ‘space’ is now seen as an opportunity to help provide solutions for terrestrial challenges, with many links to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. 

This implies core shifts in the purpose and aspirations for space initiatives and in the focus on basic scientific discovery in favour of extraordinary capacity for data processing of granular satellite data of the earth and its processes. The ability to process in real time vast amounts of data will enable humans to reduce risks related to national disaster, to improve mobility, to address humanitarian crises in a timely manner and overall to augment the productivity of many economic sectors. For developing countries to seize many of these opportunities, new forms of international cooperation and of development assistance will also need to be put in place.

But these opportunities do not come without risks. The side points to these changes are the increasing relevance of cybersecurity issues and the implications for global power dynamics and national sovereignty, where ‘space’ is becoming a new terrain for these old challenges to play out.

5. Looking into the very near future, a wider global public than ever before is set to become entranced with the potential of the galaxies above our heads. Crucially, these will include the generations not yet born when the last space race took place. This is the heart of the impact of the duelling billionaires.

These young people are set to discover space on their own terms. Epoch defining issues such as climate change, sustainability, inequality, and corporate transparency, accountability and diversity, which are animating current generations, will shape the issues on the agenda for those who lead in today’s space race. This, along with the overall interest in space and the Sustainable Development Goals reinforces the importance of space for terrestrial solutions - Earth-focused Space.

The upshot: This space race opens onto an era when space is not considered as a world separate from Earth but instead in symbiosis with promise to help address the grand challenges facing Earth. This is indeed a new frontier and going forward, a brave new world.