In a strategic move reminiscent of the bygone era when NASA locked horns with the Soviet Union in the space race, the agency is once again harnessing private sector prowess to propel humanity’s celestial ambitions. Half a century after the Apollo missions, NASA has embraced private enterprise as a linchpin in its lunar exploration endeavours.
Administrator Bill Nelson, a veteran of space politics, asserts that partnering with private companies is essential to mitigate the exorbitant costs of lunar missions. Furthermore, it enables NASA to tap into the boundless well of entrepreneurial creativity residing within the private sector. Rather than engaging in an isolated contest, NASA is leveraging the capabilities of commercial titans like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which secured a monumental $3 billion contract in 2021 for lunar lander construction while concurrently developing the world’s most potent rocket.
NASA’s gambit extends beyond SpaceX. Earlier this year, the agency inked a staggering $3.4 billion pact with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, tasking them with constructing a lunar lander for future missions. These colossal investments, while emblematic of NASA’s steadfast commitment to lunar exploration, are not solely driven by the scientific urge to conquer new frontiers. They also serve as a response to the broader geopolitical tensions brewing between the world’s two preeminent economic powerhouses—the United States and China.
In a surprising development, India recently etched its name in history as the fourth nation to achieve a soft landing on the Moon, a feat that culminated in reaching the elusive lunar south pole region. Despite this achievement, all eyes within NASA remain fixed on China, whose burgeoning space program has attained unprecedented milestones. Notably, China stands as the solitary nation with a self-sustained space station, has successfully repatriated lunar samples, and harbours grand designs to explore the lunar polar regions.
Bill Nelson is unequivocally concerned about China’s territorial aspirations on the Moon, particularly if water resources are discovered on the lunar south pole. The spectre of China claiming exclusivity over these resources, akin to its actions in the South China Sea, haunts his thoughts. Adding to his disquiet, China remains conspicuously absent from the US-led Artemis Accords—a framework intended to govern responsible behaviour in space and lunar exploration.
China, for its part, insists on its commitment to peaceful space exploration and characterises US concerns as an unfounded smear campaign. Nonetheless, this escalating rivalry is fuelling NASA’s prodigious financial investments. In the fiscal year ending September 2021, NASA’s expenditure injected a staggering $71.2 billion into the US economy—a formidable 10.7% escalation from the previous year.
While the likes of SpaceX might dominate headlines, the tentacles of NASA’s spending extend far deeper into the economy. Administrator Nelson underscores that a quarter of NASA’s spending nurtures small businesses, often in the nascent stages of their development. This financial influx can act as a catalyst, propelling fledgling firms, especially startups, into the orbit of private investors, thereby fuelling further growth.
Sinead O’Sullivan, a former NASA engineer who now serves as a space economist at Harvard Business School, underscores the pivotal role governments play as initial customers for these burgeoning firms. Government contracts not only provide crucial financial support but also serve as a springboard for attracting private investments—an often-overlooked facet of fostering innovation in the nascent space industry.
While the race back to the Moon might seize the limelight, it has unfurled a cascade of ancillary space activities, heralding a potentially more lucrative epoch in the annals of space exploration. From Russia’s pioneering satellite launch in 1957 to the current tally of over 10,500 satellites adorning Earth’s celestial tapestry, the trajectory of human exploration continues to soar, propelled by governmental acumen and private sector zeal.