On Tuesday, private space company SpaceX made an attempt at landing the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean. On the first attempt, the rocket crashed into the barge, but today's attempt came closer to succeeding. The rocket was on target but came down with too much velocity and tipped over after landing, according to initial reports from SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. SpaceX will continue to modify and improve its system in an effort to achieve a reusable launch system, a significant and necessary advancement for private space industry.
Space is a new frontier of geopolitics, one that we are continually watching for new technological, political and economic developments. We are already highly reliant on satellite technology for civilian communication, navigation and military purposes. As we continue to explore the cosmos, competition will increase between nations as well as between the public and private sectors to develop technology and, in the very long term, secure territory in space.
The successful touchdown of the Falcon 9 rocket would have been a monumental advancement by SpaceX toward its eventual goal of providing a launch system that can be rapidly recovered. Being able to recover and reuse a rocket would remove a large cost tied to each launch; the elimination of payments for new rockets or refurbishment could bring down the cost of a launch by as much as a factor of 100.
As the space shuttle program shows, the concept of reusable craft is not foreign to Washington. However, driven by competition and the desire to make a profit, the SpaceX system will eventually become a cheaper way to launch objects and people beyond Earth's atmosphere and aid in the proliferation of space-based technology. Lowering the cost of space-related technologies — whether satellite communications or imaging technology — has potential military applications and can give developing countries access to such technologies. Partnerships between the United Kingdom and several countries in Africa illustrate this potential.
Collaboration between nations is interesting, but it has been the turn toward the private sector — especially for the United States — that has been key to technological developments that reduce launch costs. SpaceX is not the only organization developing reusable launch systems. The United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced plans on Monday for its own recovery system. Instead of landing the rocket on a platform, like SpaceX, ULA plans to develop mid-air recovery. Either way, cheaper launch costs would directly address a variety of concerns. It would reduce the cost of the current pace of launches or allow for more launches at a similar cost while making the technology more accessible to other countries and companies.
The United States has a unique need for space capabilities, because it is by far the dominant force in, and most reliant on, space-based infrastructure. It is in Washington's strategic interest for the SpaceX or ULA trials to eventually succeed and help maintain that dominance. The U.S. military mission set requires expeditionary capabilities and a global footprint. On a dense sphere made of rock, the only way to have efficient command and control of these forces is through space-based infrastructure. Access to space enables and facilitates nearly every function of a global military. As the U.S. military greatly increases its reliance on space-based infrastructure, other nations are increasing their defensive reach into space. Rapidly advancing technology is outpacing the infrastructure that the United States is getting into orbit. These factors squeeze the U.S. military's resource base and threaten the effectiveness of its structure.
Cheap launches could become the cornerstone of survivability in space in the future by establishing the lead position in the developing so-called "launch gap." Space infrastructure is notoriously hard to defend, and other states are rapidly acquiring offensive capabilities against it, including anti-satellite weapons. One of the suggested strategies for addressing this issue is using a high volume of cheap and replaceable assets that can be put up faster than they can be incapacitated. This would only be feasible if the U.S. military had a decisive advantage in access to cheap space launches.
Space was once the playground of the United States and Russia. The relationship evolved from contentious, during the space race of the mid-20th century, to cooperative, exemplified by the International Space Station. However, tensions are on the rise again, exemplified by last year's suspension of cooperation between NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency as well as Russia's reported discovery of spy satellites disguised as space junk. We expect competition in space to grow in the coming years and decades because of the extreme importance of space-based technologies for military purposes and communications.
But space is no longer a realm of binary competition between Russia and the United States. A more diverse set of aspiring countries is moving in as well. Collaborations have been vital in widening participation in space travel and space technology. Thus, a number of other countries will have a growing presence in space in the future; China is already at the forefront of developing economies investing in space programs. Decreasing costs will also be instrumental to the diversification of space. Tuesday's SpaceX trial, though not a success, is still a small stepping stone for further cost reductions that will allow the United States to maintain its dominance in space on the back of private industry. But an overall reduction in costs will not be confined to American private industry forever.