Welcome to the age of commercial spaceflight! Private rockets are delivering private satellites to space via rideshare and reusable rockets. As of this week, Virgin Galactic, in conjunction with NASA, is set to open a private astronaut program with public accessibility. Most importantly, private companies are raising billions for operations in space. These are developments that could only be called science fiction some 20 years ago.
The progression of commercial operations in space has been at a pace unlike anything else in history. Much of this change can be traced back to legislation from the George W. Bush administration that gives clues to where we can expect the market to take us in the next 20 years.
Recognizing the dangers of total dependence on the government for domestic access to space or outsourcing large swaths of the U.S. space operations overseas, Congress enacted the original Commercial Space Launch Act in 1984. Twenty years later, Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments (CSLAA) that further expanded commercial access to space. CSLAA laid the groundwork for the private space industry, opening the entrepreneurial door to a generation of Americans that have invested billions to compete in the marketplace. This week, 16 years after the passage of the CSLAA, it’s great to see the commercial space race finally achieve liftoff.
In May, the United States space program took a monumental step forward with the launch of astronauts aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft from Kennedy Space Center. It wasn’t easy getting there. However, a strong partnership between NASA and SpaceX, and SpaceX’s rapidly-growing experience base of unmanned launches, provided an unprecedented degree of confidence in the safety of the Dragon/Falcon system. The crew successfully reached the International Space Station the day after launch, clearly demonstrating that the new movement in space is finally taking hold.
But that launch, while breathtaking and historic, doesn’t come close to marking the end of the story. While Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskHillicon Valley — States probe the tech giants Equilibrium/Sustainability — Bald eagle comeback impacted by lead poison Tesla puts Cybertruck production on hold until early 2023: report MORE’s SpaceX was one of the first companies to take full advantage of CSLAA and build amazing space vehicles, it isn’t alone. The free market is alive and well. Ever since the legislation went into effect, the country has seen many companies seize on the newly competitive industry. Rocket Lab, for example, lifted NASA and reconnaissance satellites into space for the twelfth time on June 13. Many other enterprises, from Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosFree speech, Whole Foods, and the endangered apolitical workplace Space: One important thing that might retain bipartisan focus Virtual realities may solve Fermi's paradox about extraterrestrials MORE’ Blue Origin to Tony Bruno’s United Launch Alliance and Eileen Drake’s Aerojet Rocketdyne, have all created or expanded the scope of their development programs in the years since.
All of these new industry participants represent the beauty of CSLAA at work. In creating the bill, Congress sought to create an environment where entrepreneurs have no choice but to look for niches and holes in the market to get ahead of their peers. It knew that this survival of the fittest atmosphere would strengthen the abilities of each contractor, bolstering NASA's efficiency and America's national security as a result. Anyone who has visited Kennedy Space Center over the past decade can’t help but notice how vibrant and alive the place feels now, with launches nearly every week and huge new facilities like Blue Origin’s nearing completion.
It's imperative that we not rely on any one company to get us into space. In the five years leading up to the Demo-2 mission, two of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 boosters had experienced catastrophic failures, and a previous unmanned Crew Dragon exploded on the test stand. SpaceX suffered an unexpected explosion of its Starship test article the day before the Crew Dragon launched to the ISS (it's a reminder that astronauts are very brave people indeed). Spaceflight is a highly complicated business and no company or entrepreneur has all of the answers. That’s why competition and a diversity of companies and launch vehicles are so critical to our future.
CSLAA unleashed the free marketplace in space with that idea in mind. The legislation not only drives every space company to move forward with urgency (and safely), but it also gives NASA an abundance of market options to choose from to fit the needs of each unique, complex mission. The added competition ensures the industry remains the best, most robust and boldest in the world.
No one could imagine what commercial space flight would look like nearly two decades later after CSLAA’s passage. Our nation's best innovators are pushing us to new heights, and soon we'll be exploring new worlds, creating new industries and ushering in a new era of American exceptionalism. These bold innovators will take us where no person has gone before, and the country will be all the better for it.
Jonathan H. Ward is a freelance writer and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and the author of three books on American crewed spaceflight, the most recent of which is "Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew (2018)."