• Shreyanshi Mishra

The 21st Century Space Race

On April 30 2001, for the first time in the history of human spaceflight, Dennis Tito, millionaire and space enthusiast, arrived at the International Space Station (ISS), becoming the world's first space tourist. Two decades in the making and only a handful of people have managed to get their ticket to the stars. Space tourism, though on a steady rise, remained largely inaccessible, even for the deep pockets- Until the top three richest people on the planet decided to put vast sums of their wealth into fulfilling their space dreams, converting the near-earth space into a private arena for their space race.

A walk down the history of Space Races

The space race is by no means a novel concept. This phenomenon was first observed during the Cold War era between the then-superpowers of the world, the capitalist USA and communist USSR. Both superpowers invested huge capital and manpower into space exploration, which resulted in a two-decade-long race where both global forces tried to outpace the other. Historic moments on both sides were heavily televised with an onslaught of propaganda and the tension resolved only after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The players of the modern Space Race

The modern space race is undeniably similar, but not quite the same. Where there was a clash of cultures to establish ideological dominance, this is a clash of egos between three billionaires: Jeff Bezos (founder and chairman of Amazon), Elon Musk (founder and CEO of SpaceX), and Richard Branson (English business magnate and investor).

On 20th July, 2021, Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, announced that he would fly in his ‘Blue Origin’s New Shepard’ spacecraft, and set the ball rolling for other business tycoons to join the race. Richard Branson promptly decided to take an hour-long suborbital flight on his ‘Virgin Galactic VSS Unity’ space plane nine days earlier in a display of superiority. Now Elon Musk has bought a ticket on Branson’s Virgin Galactic and plans on visiting the stars sometime in the near future.

Musk, despite not having announced the exact time of his visit to space, is undeniably leading the race to space by a margin. SpaceX’s mission Inspiration4 made history on 18th September ‘21 by safely returning to earth after a three-day trip with all four civilian passengers aboard a Dragon capsule. This historic mission marked the beginning of a new phase in space tourism.

The Privatization of space – A subject of conflict

Since its inception, the space industry has been dominated by government organizations and used for purposes beneficial to the state. With the integration of private companies in the business, the goals of space exploration have inevitably shifted. Extracting profit from extra-terrestrial resources is now a major objective of all corporations involved in the industry. This difference in intentions has been predicted to change the trajectory of space exploration. For better or for worse you ask? Experts confess that it is too early to foretell what the far-reaching consequences of this emerging sector might be.

The Perks- Skewed benefits enjoyed by a few

Privatization of space exploration has numerous benefits for the space industry in modern times. Private companies enjoy a greater degree of autonomy when it comes to decision-making and do not have to limit themselves on grounds of state accountability. Furthermore, shortened decision-making process and easier verification through each step substantially lowers the cost of performing operations, like launching rockets.

The growth of the space industry has also led to an increase in employment opportunities. The publicity of all operations undertaken by private companies has also kindled a newfound interest in space exploration. It has led to a shift in perspective in the way people view interstellar journeys. Instead of perceiving space as an inaccessible obscure entity, more and more people have started entertaining the idea of a colony on Mars or a trip to the moon on a weekend.

The Pitfalls- One too many

One of the biggest drawbacks of the privatization of space exploration is the lack of accountability on the part of the corporations, who are not answerable to any state organization in case of mishaps. It must be noted that research is not the driving factor of the private space industry, but profit. Projects that promise profit might be favoured over those which are beneficial for humankind, which in turn might be given a backseat.

Branson wants us to “Imagine a world where people of all ages, all backgrounds from anywhere, of any gender, any ethnicity, have equal access to space.”

This statement was met with severe, and some would say, well deserved criticism. Branson’s idea of equality of opportunity to visit space goes on to demonstrate how far removed the uber-rich of our planet are from ground reality. In a system where oppressive power structures actively hinder the growth of marginalized communities, and world hunger and poverty are prevalent, offering tickets to space sounds almost preposterous.

Not only is the idea ludicrous but also delusional. It would take decades of persistent advancement in the field of space exploration to make it remotely affordable for even the middle class. And ecologists believe those bucks might be better spent somewhere else.

The fate of State- led space agencies

One of the most noteworthy collaborations of the century has been between NASA and SpaceX. NASA’s investments and guidance, coupled with SpaceX’s competitive pricing and reusable rockets, have revolutionized the space sector.

Experts, including those at NASA, deem this collaboration to be extremely beneficial. They regard it as a new era in the field of space exploration, and perhaps it is, but the evolving dynamics have bereft NASA of a predominant role as a space agency.

Indian space enthusiasts, too, are inclined towards a similar collaboration between private companies and ISRO. ISRO, much like NASA, already has ties with numerous private enterprises for funding and research purposes. But a full-blown private sector focused on space tourism is still distant.

This niche segment of aviation is still in the making and it is difficult to predict the long-term effects. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that the ultra-rich have steeled themselves to give their all to secure the future of space tourism. Do you believe that their fortunes are enough to keep the industry afloat or will public criticism prevail over the 21st-century space race?


~ Shreyanshi Mishra

References: FICSRCC, The Week, Washington Post, RMG