2010-2019: The decade in space

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It was a decade of enormous change. When it began, SpaceX was on the ropes, cubesats were teaching tools, NASA’s lunar ambitions were back on hold and no one in Washington was calling for a Space Force.

Here, we recount some of the ways the 2010s transformed commercial, civil and military space, while recognizing it would be impossible to list all the ways a potent combination of venture capital, technology and politics disrupted the status quo.

It was the decade of SpaceX

On Jan. 1, 2010, SpaceX had performed just two successful launches of its small Falcon 1 rocket, after three failures that put the company’s future in jeopardy. Six months later, SpaceX introduced the Falcon 9, which has become the company’s workhorse. As of mid-December 2019, SpaceX has launched 77 Falcon 9s.

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and Falcon Heavy also traveled into orbit for the first time in the 2010s. Dragon went on to conduct 19 missions transporting cargo to and from the International Space Station. Falcon Heavy, the most powerful U.S. launch vehicle since the Saturn 5, flew three times.

SpaceX’s technical successes had much broader business and policy impacts. SpaceX disrupted the commercial launch industry with its low prices, helping turn Sea Launch and International Launch Services — major launch companies at the beginning of the decade — into also-rans. SpaceX pushed its way into the national security launch market, suing the Air Force and ultimately forcing it to open up some launches for competition. Arianespace and United Launch Alliance, their leadership in the commercial and U.S. government markets, respectively, threatened by SpaceX, had to respond with new launch vehicles that could better compete with Falcon 9.

“SpaceX increased access to orbit by lowering the cost and bringing transparency to the market for the first time by publishing pricing,” said Chad Anderson, CEO of Space Angels, a venture capital firm that’s invested in SpaceX.“This is what’s opened up space for entrepreneurs.”

A key factor in that disruption was SpaceX’s commitment to reusability. In the early 2010s most were skeptical that a Falcon 9 first stage could be recovered at all, let alone reused, a belief supported by early landing attempts that ended in explosions. In December 2015, though, SpaceX landed a Falcon 9 first stage successfully. Less than two years later, the company began reusing first stages for launches. That has become routine today: a Dec. 16 Falcon 9 launch was the third flight of that particular first stage, and its landing was the 47th successful one.

The technical feasibility and financial benefits of reusability have led others to follow suit. Blue Origin plans to land the first stage of New Glenn on a ship, while Rocket Lab is experimenting with midair recovery of its Electron small launcher. Europe is funding studies of reusable launchers and, on a recent launch, a Chinese rocket was spotted with grid fins like those used on Falcon 9 to guide its re-entry.

“Reusable launchers: For that I give Elon the credit,” said Alan Stern, engineer, planetary scientist and former Commercial Spaceflight Federation chairman. “He had a vision and a good enough technical understanding to see if you could solve the problems, and they are nontrivial, you could change the value of space. Once he made it work, everybody had to follow.”

As a new decade begins, SpaceX’s ambitions are bigger than ever. The company is on the cusp of flying people into orbit on its Crew Dragon spacecraft. It has started launching its Starlink broadband constellation that could ultimately include tens of thousands of satellites. It’s also developing a next-generation launch vehicle: a booster called Super Heavy and an upper stage called Starship. Both, of course, are reusable.

“Elon Musk has been an inspiration for hundreds of entrepreneurs and not just in launch,” said Charles Beames, chairman of York Space Systems and of the SmallSat Alliance. “Seeing what he did, pivoting out of the tech sector and starting SpaceX, has given encouragement to hundreds of people starting up space companies all over the place.”

President Trump signs Space Policy Directive 1 in 2017. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

The moon waxed and waned

To observers on Earth, the moon goes through phases, waxing and waning over the course of about 30 days. The moon also waxes and wanes, albeit on far longer cycles, when it comes to space policy.

At the beginning of the decade the moon was waning in importance. The Obama administration sought to cancel the Constellation program, which planned to return humans to the moon by 2020. “I just have to say pretty bluntly here: we’ve been there before,” President Barack Obama said of the moon in an April 2010 speech at the Kennedy Space Center explaining his administration’s new human spaceflight policy.

While many elements of Constellation, like the Orion spacecraft, survived, a return to the moon did not. NASA instead focused on the long-term goal of sending humans to Mars. In the nearer term, NASA proposed the Asteroid Redirect Mission, where it would grab a boulder from a near Earth asteroid and move it into lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts. It failed to win much support in Congress or the broader space community.

The moon, though, rebounded when President Donald Trump took office. Space Policy Directive 1 in late 2017 formally instructed NASA to return humans to the moon. When NASA’s plans to do so by 2028 faced criticism for being too slow, Vice President Mike Pence sped up the timetable in a speech in March, directing NASA to do so by 2024.

The moon is certainly full at NASA today, with the agency moving as fast as it can to pull together all the elements needed to land humans safely on the moon in 2024 while leveraging growing commercial space capabilities. What remains uncertain, though, is how much that effort will cost, and how willing Congress will be to fund it.

Mars, meanwhile, lurks in the background, the subject of a steady stream of robotic missions. The latest, Mars 2020, is set to launch next year to start the effort to return samples of Martian rocks to the Earth. The red planet remains the long-term goal of human spaceflight, but likely no sooner than the early 2030s.

Those priorities could shift again if a new president takes office in 2021. Or even if not: Trump himself has questioned whether NASA really needs to return to the moon before going on to Mars. The moon may not stay full forever.

Venture capital flooded the space sector

Billions of dollars in private capital flowed into space startups in the decade. In 2010, few entrepreneurs saw opportunities in the sector long dominated by government contractors.

From early 2009 through the third quarter of 2019, 509 startups raised $24.6 billion, according to the venture capital firm Space Angels.

The investment picture began to change in the early 2000s when billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson established SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, respectively. The late Paul Allen followed suit in 2011, establishing Stratolaunch Systems.

“Wealthy individuals have been important in every sector that has moved from government to private enterprise: infrastructure, shipping, railroads,” said Space Angels CEO Chad Anderson. “Often a very wealth individual funds it, believes in it and is willing to continue providing funding until it gets commercial traction.”

Once the billionaires lead the way, venture capital flooded into the market. In 2018 alone, 114 venture funds made their first space investment.

“What blew my mind was the incredible influx of venture capital from mainstream venture funds,” said Steve Jurvetson, co-founder Future Ventures, a SpaceX board member, and Planet investor. ”SpaceX is clearly a juggernaut of a company and a visible success. A wave of fast followers saw that and wanted to have a space investment in their portfolio. The end of this decade has been a great time to have been an entrepreneur.”

“Billionaires generally have had a tremendous impact in terms of initiative, vision, funding, risk-taking,” said Charles Beames, York Space Systems chairman, SmallSat Alliance chairman and former Vulcan Aerospace president. “SpaceX has had the most impact because massive reductions in the cost to launch national security satellites continues to have a big ripple effect, allowing the government to think about disaggregation and the use of small satellites.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announces the Blue Moon lander May 9, 2019, in Washington.

Money, technology & launch sparked a commercial renaissance

Books will be written about the commercial space renaissance of the 2010s and the unlikely convergence of smartphone technology with Silicon Valley riches, the cubesat standard and brokers offering excess launch capacity.

It was the decade when NASA and the Defense Department turned to SpaceX to reduce launch costs and Jeff Bezos revealed he sells $1 billion in Amazon stock annually to fund Blue Origin. Startups popped up seemingly overnight to raise tens of millions of dollars for communications, data collection, asteroid mining and mostly to build new rockets. Some of the newcomers disappeared as quickly as they emerged. Others exhibited resilience in lean times and expanded their customer base.

“There’s a pace of change that is dynamically different than 10 years ago. When you can build, launch and test a small satellite quickly, you can iterate quickly and take advantage of Moore’s Law,” said Steve Jurvetson, co-founder of Future Ventures, a SpaceX board member and Planet investor.

“A good analogy is personal computers compared to mainframes,” said Dan Rasky, NASA Ames Research Center senior scientist and director of the Emerging Commercial Space Office. “Before, you had to be a government entity to have a spacecraft. Now, you can build a small spacecraft and you have a variety of launch options. People tend to be ingenious when they have access to new things.”

“The idea of constellations of dozens of satellites didn’t exist before. They couldn’t exist when you had to launch $100 million to $1 billion behemoths. But when you can stamp out satellites for prices that are in the millions, $1 million apiece or even less, it’s opened up so many applications,” said Alan Stern, former NASA associate administrator for science and World View co-founder and chief scientist.

Credit: ESA illustration

Orbital debris attracted attention, not action

With roughly 30,000 pieces of space debris softball size or larger in Earth orbit, including 3,000 functioning satellites, it’s no wonder space traffic management was a hot topic in the 2010s.

The decade began on the heels of the 2007 Chinese antisatellite test and the 2009 collision of an Iridium communications satellite with a defunct Russian spacecraft, two events that together produced more than 8,000 objects softball-size or larger. As the decade neared its end, India conducted its own antisatellite test adding hundreds of additional pieces of debris to the catalog, although many reentered the atmosphere quickly since the collision occurred at an altitude of 300 kilometers.

“The Chinese antisatellite test and the Iridium-Cosmos collision raised concerns. Then as the decade progressed, we started seeing the large constellations and cubesats. People realized it’s not just the change in the debris environment, it’s also more active satellites. Those things reinforced the need to focus on debris and space traffic management,” said Brian Weeden, Secure World Foundation program planning director.

In spite of a growing drumbeat of calls for regulations or international agreements to tighten debris mitigation standards, little changed. That may not be true for the next decade, however, as international space leaders call for action in light of intense commercial space activity.

The decade, which began with people devising constellations of tens or hundreds of satellites, ended with companies preparing to send tens of thousands into new communications constellations.

“Outer space is infinite. Near-Earth space is not. We put objects on very specific orbital highways. There is some maximum carrying capacity of the orbital highways for sustaining safe operations,” said Moriba Jah, an orbital mechanics expert at the University of Texas, Austin.

Projects to capture defunct satellites or rocket bodies largely stalled out during the decade. In 2018, however, the University of Surrey’s Space Centre’s RemoveDEBRIS project lived up to its name by netting and harpooning objects in orbit. Startups Astroscale and ClearSpace raised money for debris-grabbing missions at a time when 200,000 pieces of small debris came into focus thanks to projects as distinct as the U.S. Air Force Space Fence and space tracking radars built by Silicon Valley startup LeoLabs.

“During the decade, there was a greater realization that we have been too cavalier about space debris,” said Gordon Roesler, former Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program manager. “‘Space is big’ is not a good attitude. But let’s not go crazy either. The sky is not falling debris-wise.”

Smallsats became big business

When the decade began, cubesats were popular teaching tools and technology testbeds. By the time it ended, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Defense Department and the National Reconnaissance Office were flying their own cubesats or buying data gathered by commercial cubesat constellations. It was a remarkable turn of events for an industry that refers to anything under 500 or 600 kilograms as a “small” satellite.

“Cubesats went from being a university curiosity to being a commercial success,” said Gordon Roesler, former Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program manager and Robots in Space president.

The rise of cubesats became more pronounced as the decade wore on due, in part, to the prolific launch activity of Planet. The San Francisco firm accounted for more than half the 663 commercial remote sensing small satellites sent aloft from 2012 to 2018, according to Bryce Space and Technology. Add in Spire Global’s weather, maritime and aviation-tracking cubesats and the figure jumps to two-thirds.

For most of the decade, commercial activity focused on packing increased capability into miniature Earth observation satellites. “This was done by leveraging investment from non-aerospace sectors such as consumer devices, medical devices, and self-driving cars,” said Robbie Schingler, Planet co-founder chief strategy officer. “Dramatically increased access to space and more cutting-edge technology in every spacecraft has provided the world with access to an unprecedented amount of data.”

As the decade neared its conclusion, companies unveiled plans for global communications constellations to connect vehicles, sensors and people to the internet. SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb could collectively launch more than 47,000 satellites.

For some, news of the megaconstellations evokes memories of communications constellations that failed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Others were more optimistic, saying the new ventures will benefit from miniature electronics, reusable rockets, 3D printing and electric propulsion.

“We’ve gone from one or two gigabits on a $200 million satellite to a couple hundred gigabits on some of the newest geostationary satellites,” said Armand Musey, founder of Summit Ridge Group, a New York financial consulting firm. “The same proportional increase is happening on the megaconstellations.”

NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The space industry became a little less male

The space industry, like society at large, spent much of the 2010s wrestling with long-simmering issues of diversity and inclusion. Although no one is declaring “Mission Accomplished,” companies and organizations made concerted efforts to bring new faces into the workforce with some success.

“Diversity in aerospace is slowly improving and that is of critical importance, but the pace is frustratingly slow,” said Ellen Stofan, former NASA chief scientist and director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “Diverse teams simply produce better outcomes. We’re not going to make it to Mars by utilizing only half our workforce.”

In 2010, the Women in Aerospace Foundation began awarding scholarships. In 2013, NASA’s astronaut corps reached male-female parity for the first time. From 2017 to 2019, the Brooke Owens Fellowship paired 114 undergraduate women with aerospace mentors and internships.“When little girls see women astronauts, they start to realize they can do anything. To me, they don’t have to go onto space for us to have made a difference,” said Lori Garver, former NASA deputy administrator and Brooke Owens Fellowship co-founder.

Three women, Deborah Lee James, Heather Wilson and Barbara Barrett, were confirmed by the U.S. Senate during the 2010s to serve as secretary of the Air Force.

With the end of the decade looming, women hold key C-suite positions, including Gwynne Shotwell at SpaceX, Leanne Caret at Boeing, Marillyn A. Hewson at Lockheed Martin, Kathy Warden at Northrop Grumman and Eileen Drake at Aerojet Rocketdyne.

“We have always had a challenge in the male-dominated aerospace and defense community,” said Debra Facktor, Ball Aerospace Strategic Operations vice president and general manager. “While it’s still there, there’s more than talk about changing it. There is focused action and a growing awareness of the value of diversity and inclusion to innovation and competitiveness.”

A 3D-printed wrench on ISS. Credit: NASA

3D printing became greater than the sum of its parts

In the early 2000s, 3D printing was a popular tool for prototyping components and shaving weight from noncritical spacecraft parts. That was before GE Aviation began incorporating 3D-printed nozzles in a new generation of turbofan engines and SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket with a 3D-printed Merlin engine valve.

Once additive manufacturing proved capable of withstanding the extreme temperature and intense vibration of a rocket launch, it became an important tool for projects as distinct as Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RS-25 engines for NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System, SpaceX Crew Dragon SuperDraco engines and Rocket Lab’s Electron small launch vehicle Rutherford engines. Additive manufacturing is also a calling card for Relativity Space, the Los Angeles startup that has raised more than $185 million to additively manufacture entire rockets.

“The breakthroughs early in the decade showed that additive manufacturing can handle some of the hardest applications and actually get human-rated,” said Tim Ellis, Relativity Space co-founder and CEO.

Additive manufacturing moved off Earth in 2014 when Made In Space sent the first 3D printer to the International Space Station. Now the space station is home to Made In Space’s Additive Manufacturing Facility and Tethers Unlimited’s plastic-recycling Refabricator.

“The move toward specifications, standards and qualification of additively manufactured hardware is very significant. You have improvement in the modeling and inspection for additive manufacturing. The pervasiveness in the industry is driving forward the correlating technologies,” said Raymond “Corky” Clinton Jr., NASA Marshall Space Flight Center associate director of the science and technology office.

Maxar satellite imagery. Credit: Maxar

Earth observation went global

Earth observation from space was dominated by a handful of nations in 2010. A decade later, dozens of countries, including China, are gathering imagery and data via satellite. As a result, Earth observation has become a popular tool for monitoring global oil supplies, soybean yields and air quality.

Meanwhile, commercial remote sensing startups sprung up around the world in the 2010s to take advantage of miniature electronics and lower-cost rides to orbit. The list includes Planet and Satellogic founded in 2010, GHGSat in 2011, Spire Global in 2012, BlackSky in 2013, Iceye in 2014, HawkEye 360 in 2015 and Capella Space in 2016. “Regulations that govern the industry, particularly in the U.S., have not kept up with the pace of technological innovation,” said Walter Scott, Maxar executive vice president and chief technology officer. “The Land Remote Sensing Policy Act was passed in 1992. Regulations were last updated in 2006. While remote sensing technology and applications have made leaps and bounds since 2010, from a regulatory standpoint, it’s been a decade of inaction or in some cases walking backwards rather than going forwards.”

“Analytics is growing. At the beginning of the decade, we didn’t have companies like Orbital Insight, Descartes Labs and Ursa Space,” said Matt O’Connell, Seraphim Capital managing partner and former GeoEye CEO.

China overtook Russia as the one to watch

As the decade began, the U.S. military was starting to turn its attention from Iraq and Afghanistan to new potential adversaries. In 2011, President Obama announced America’s pivot toward the Asia Pacific, a vast theater that demanded increased reliance on space-based communications and surveillance. At the same time, military and intelligence leaders were becoming concerned about emerging threats.

“With each passing year, we were seeing more potential threats to our space capabilities, not only the satellites on orbit but also the networks that control them as well as the user equipment that the joint forces depend upon for actually being able to exploit space,” said retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, Lockheed Martin Commercial Space vice president and general manager and former commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.

Military leaders knew, for example, that Russia was rebuilding antisatellite capabilities developed during the Cold War, said Brian Weeden, Secure World Foundation program planning director and co-author of “Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment.”

China, meanwhile, was proving it could infiltrate terrestrial networks and attack satellites in orbit.

“In 2010, discussion of the Chinese threat in space was limited to low Earth orbit and their direct ascent [anti-satellite] weapons,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Aerospace Security Project and a principal author of “Space Threat Assessment 2019.” “Over the past decade, China has continued to develop antisatellite capabilities to reach all orbits and to affect the operation of satellites both through kinetic attack and non-kinetic forms of attack.”

China also proved formidable in rocketry, leading the world in orbital launches in 2018 and 2019, and making strides in space exploration, landing the Chang’e-4 lander on the far side of the moon in 2018. Throughout the decade, China filled in its Beidou Navigation Satellite System and encouraged the growth of a commercial space sector.

The decade was not as kind to Russia’s space program. Seventeen Russian rockets failed between 2011 and 2018, according to the Planetary Society. The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft destined for Mars and its moons didn’t make it out of Earth orbit in 2011. The European Space Agency-Russian Schiaparelli lander crashed into the red planet in 2016.

One bright note was the Soyuz spacecraft, which became a lifeline for astronauts and cosmonauts traveling to the International Space Station after NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011. Even that normally reliable vehicle, however, suffered an emergency abort in 2018.

Gen. John Hyten. Credit: SpaceNews screen shot

Debate culminates in U.S. Space Force

In April 2015, Gen. John Hyten, then head of U.S. Air Force Space Command, changed the conversation about military space activities with an appearance on “60 Minutes.”

“We’re threatened in space. We have the right of self-defense and we’ll make sure we can execute that right,” Hyten said.

Those comments triggered a series of actions in the Defense Department, Congress and the White House aimed at making national security space systems more resilient. In 2016, the Air Force Space Command unveiled its Space Enterprise Vision. In 2019, the Trump administration reestablished U.S. Space Command and directed Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin to create the Space Development Agency.

Hyten’s remarks also fueled a lengthy debate about whether a new organization should be created to lead U.S. national security space. In 2017, Reps. Mike Rogers and Jim Cooper, the then-chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, called for the creation of a stand-alone Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force.

“The debate on how to better organize military space has been going on since the Rumsfeld Commission report in 2001. It never had a lot of political push until Rogers restarted discussion of the Space Corps,” said Brian Weeden, Secure World Foundation program planning director.

While Rogers and Cooper’s proposal did not make into the defense authorization bill that year, the idea of giving space an independent voice in the Pentagon attracted renewed attention months later when President Donald Trump, speaking at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, said that the United States needed a Space Force to fight enemies that threaten U.S. access to space.

The president’s remarks, which initially spawned jokes about starship ninjas gearing up to fight space aliens, ultimately led to language in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act establishing a sixth branch of the U.S. military: the U.S. Space Force. chairman and ranking member, respectively,

“We’ve had a pretty steady drumbeat through the entire decade, calling for a new organization structure for defense and national security space,” said retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, former commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. “Over the summer there was the creation of a dedicated U.S. Space Command, a joint unified combatant command. Now it appears there will be an independent and distinct Space Force as part of the Department of the Air Force. Those two things together will have a profound impact on defense space capabilities.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 23, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.