An important contribution to the future of space engineering came on Wednesday when the US Fish and Wildlife Service gave their thumbs-up to the launch of SpaceX Starship IFT-2, which blasted off from Texas on Saturday. The IFT-2 is one of the largest, most powerful spaceships ever made, and completed its launch following a failed run this April (this time the ‘ship’ completed its initial launch phase though the booster rocket exploded and the ship was destroyed). Many readers will know that the Starship is ‘re-useable’ in that the ‘ship’ element can slow horizontally and then flip to perform a vertical landing.
Starship has all of the elements we now readily associate with Elon Musk – disruptive genius, oodles of capital and a tense relationship with government – Starship will ferry satellites to space (Starlink satellites will account for about 40% of Space X revenues) and is also intended to taxi astronauts to the moon, and eventually Mars, and in so doing it creates a dependency of NASA and to an extent, the US military on it.
Scramble for rare places
The test flight is a reminder of the competitive interest that privateers and states are showing in the scramble for rare places, that is, the desire to unearth, control and harvest (pillage might be a better word) the deep seas, outer space and the Arctic, for example. Each of these rare places is a source of bounty, but also a potential theatre for warfare, and space is no exception.
Satellite warfare – whether satellites are either bumped out of place, smashed to smithereens in kinetic attacks or lasered – is something that militaries and their space wings (e.g. SpaceForce) prepare for. For instance, French has developed bodyguard satellites that can protect its own military and commercial satellites from attack. Indeed, satellites are massively underestimated in terms of the reliance we place on them – to guide supply chains, telecommunications, military targeting and weather mapping to name a few uses, and any future conflict between large regions would very likely involve a ‘war on satellites’.
Each contested ‘rare place’ will soon be granted its own specific vocabulary, to the extent that we now speak of astropolitics and of the evolution of the rule of law of sorts of space (i.e. the Outer Space Treaty), a polity for space, I am waiting for someone to coin the term ‘the spolity’.
One aspect, where I am on more solid ground in terms of my grasp of the laws of gravity of markets and economies, as opposed to space technology, is the space economy, which covers many aspects – from space tourism, to mining and resource harvesting to the very promising rents to be garnered from satellites.
For the US the space economy is already rooted in the military, aerospace and telecoms industries and has a ‘blue sky’ element in the sense that Washington has bought into the strategic value of the space and this view is shared by entrepreneurs and enough investors to make a difference.
If we had to map the share of the space economy on to share of gdp back on Earth, the US, China and Japan would, have chunks of the space economy that might be commensurate with their ‘Earth’ gdps, and Russia would have a chunk of the space economy that is well above the role its flailing economy plays, while India might play an important role. The EU, which accounts for over a quarter of world GDP, likely has a smaller share of space GDP (the Space Foundation puts the size of the space economy at close to Eur 500 bn). Europe’s space industry has a smaller footprint than Fiat (roughly 200,000 people are employed in the space industry according to the European Space Agency, with roughly Eur 60bn in direct and indirect revenues).
It is not without key assets though – the Ariane and Vega rocket ships, Galileo navigation system and the Govsatcom secure communication system. Across Europe there is a rising number of growth companies forming a commercial eco-system, in the production of food and water in space like environments, in mineral mining and notably in satellites, which is where the money is in space commerce.
Europe’s problem in space commerce is not unlike its banking industry, still nation centric and the common capital market is not deep enough. To make things more complex, the speculative nature of many space-oriented projects makes them difficult to finance, even for risk taking venture capitalists (space tech venture activity is back down to 2018 levels). In time I suspect that Europe may need to adopt new forms of financing for select space tech projects, that bring entrepreneurs together in pan-national projects and that combine public and private money. It might be too early for a Bank for Space, but the EU needs to realise that succeeding in space is as much about the right kind of capital, as it is about technology.
For their part, Europeans may just prefer to sit and wait it out, glad not to have funded Space X.