Space industry’s privatization leads to new breakthroughs, challenges

by Tiffany Wong, Aquila News Editor

Since the Soviet Union’s launching of the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 and the United States’ landing of the first humans on the Moon in Apollo 11 during the Space Race years, aerospace research agencies internationally have continued to push the world’s boundaries of space exploration knowledge. From NASA’s ongoing development of the James Webb Space Telescope to the upper school’s own Astronomy Club, every generation adds another piece to the universe’s puzzle.

Many of today’s space telescopes and observatories fly between 160 and 2,000 kilometers above the Earth. This range, defined as low Earth orbit, allows the satellite to observe weather patterns, orbit the planet at a fast enough rate to visit the same region multiple times a day and avoid the radiation of the inner Van Allen Belt 1,000 to 6,000 kilometers above the planet’s surface.

“Low Earth orbit is generally close enough that you can set up a satellite to be that you’re not dealing with significant air resistance from our atmosphere,” Dr. Cameron Hummels, postdoctoral scholar in astronomy at CalTech, said. “The inner boundary is definitely made so that you’re not going to start having significant air resistance as the satellite passes over, which ultimately will cause it to burn up and fall into the Earth.”

While government space agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) historically have managed the majority of the world’s space expeditions, private spaceflight companies are taking on an increasingly larger role in rocket development in the 21st century. One such enterprise is SpaceX; founded in 2002 by CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX manufactures spacecraft with the “ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.”

As industry privatization often involves changes to how government services are provided to the public, its critics argue that private companies may prioritize profit over quality of work. In the case of the space industry, they could restrict access to satellite data to only those willing to pay for it.

“When you propose to do an observation, say on Hubble, you have one year to have the data private to yourself before the data becomes public to the world for free,” Dr. David Helfand, department chair of astronomy at Columbia University, said. “The commercial interests would be in downward-facing satellites, which can see insect infestations in crops and drought patterns.”

On the other hand, privatizing the space industry could cut down on government taxes and allow the government to focus spending on industries more difficult to privatize. With various organizations tackling space exploration from multiple angles, partnerships between the government and the private sector are common.

NASA has expressed interest in SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy spacecraft, which launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 6. Capable of lifting 64 metric tons into low Earth orbit, more than twice the amount of NASA’s retired Space Shuttle’s maximum carrying capacity, it’s comparable to NASA’s upcoming fellow heavy lifter the Space Launch System. While it’s designed to lift even more than the Falcon Heavy, current development plans estimate it to be 10 times as expensive as SpaceX’s spacecraft. However, both of these projects have enough power to reach Mars.

“One of the really difficult things about sending people to Mars is you’re going so far away and you’re going to an entirely different planet; you’re signing up for a multi-year trip,” Andrew Owens, NASA Space Mission Analysis Branch Pathways Student Trainee, said. “If you think in terms of going camping, you’re camping for two and a half years, and you’ll never be able to stop at a grocery store or get supplies delivered.”

Regardless of which celestial body the space industry does decide to visit next, it’s clear part of the future of space travel lies in the findings of spacecraft like the already-launched Falcon Heavy and the Space Launch System, scheduled to take off in 2019.


Inside the NASA Ames: Local research center provides window into past and future space exploration.

This piece was originally published in the pages of the Winged Post on March 29, 2018.