Private enterprise in space

Features editor

The launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a Dragon capsule loaded with supplies for the International Space Station, marks the first time a private company has sent a craft to the ISS. It’s the beginning of a bold new chapter in space exploration, opening the field up to private enterprise and away from the hand of government funding.

Or is it?

It’s possible that we’re missing something here, but from what we’re told about SpaceX, calling it ‘privately funded’ is a bit of a long shot. Yes, it was founded by an entrepreneur, Elon Musk, who had previously started up the online payment service PayPal. But $400m seed capital came from NASA — government money. SpaceX’s most important customer is NASA, which will confirm a $1.6bn contract with the company to supply the ISS if the current mission is successful. That’s $1.6bn of, yes, government money. And the current mission — taking off from Cape Canaveral, taking cargo to a government-funded mission at a government-funded space station — is clearly a NASA mission, however you portray it.

So, how much of a leap is SpaceX, really? What exactly is the difference between this and, for example, ESA telling the private company Astrium that it needs an unmanned space truck that will be able to dock autonomously with the ISS and launch from an Ariane rocket, and Astrium building it with the funding from the government-backed agency?

As I said, it’s possible that there’s an important nuance that we’re missing here. Maybe it’s that Astrium is part of the formerly government-owned EADS conglomerate. But it seems that, without taking anything away from SpaceX’s achievement, that it doesn’t represent a bold new step in space exploration as much as it does the Americans taking a slightly different approach to how they use government money to develop spacecraft and missions.

It’s hard to imagine how real ‘private enterprise’ might get involved in space exploration; the recent announcement of the ‘space mining’ operation Planetary Resources is the closest to the way most people would probably imagine it, with its targeted R&D programme aimed at finding valuable minerals on asteroids and working out how to bring them back to Earth. It’s easy to see how this qualifies as private enterprise — it has a clear revenue stream from selling its minerals and so on. I’ve written before about how this type of enterprise could push technology forward.

The way that NASA is hoping to contract out supplying the ISS is somewhat different, and might fit into the slightly murky category of public-private partnerships. SpaceX would be in a similar position to, say, defence contractors: private companies, in that they are quoted on stock exchanges, but almost entirely dependent on tax-funded contracts for their revenues.

America is the land of opportunity and of private enterprise, of course, and they wouldn’t dream of saying that they’d decided to copy a European model. Perish the thought! But looking at SpaceX and Falcon from this side of the Atlantic, it certainly seems like it’s taking a leaf from the ESA/Astrium book. Not boldly going, maybe. More like a small step.