Op-ed | On the verge of a new era for space exploration? Assessing the impact of the ongoing crisis
For more than 50 years, our desire to explore space has led to new discoveries while providing a continuous stream of socioeconomic benefits here on Earth. Space exploration, moreover, has increasingly cemented itself as a field of high strategic importance for governments around the globe.
Fueled by these multiple factors, global government investment in space exploration has grown in the past decade driven by programs in leading countries and joined by an increasing number of actors. According to Euroconsult’s latest research, Prospects for Space Exploration 2nd Edition, global government investment in space exploration totaled nearly $20 billion in 2019, increasing at a 5% compound annual growth rate over the past five years. Thirty-one countries and space agencies lead this global investment with the United States accounting for 71% of it.
The strategic and geopolitical value of the Earth’s natural satellite plays an important role behind the rationale of heading back to the moon, and it is considered as a central piece toward future crewed Mars missions. Moreover, space agencies share the objective of creating a sustainable lunar market environment, with cost-sharing, risk-sharing, and partnering as key goals for this new wave of lunar exploration.
Leading space agencies also agree on the importance of maintaining a sustained presence in low Earth orbit. The International Space Station remains the world’s largest international cooperation program to date and the cornerstone for human spaceflight. Funding for the station is secured by all partners until at least 2024 and support has grown for extending operations to 2028 or 2030 in cooperation with the private sector. NASA’s future vision for LEO includes a sustainable U.S.-led commercial human spaceflight marketplace. China, in the meantime, has ramped up investments to ensure the launch and completion of its LEO space station in the coming years. Meanwhile, astronomy and planetary missions to Mars and other destinations will continue expanding our scientific knowledge and technical capabilities.
To achieve these goals, global government investment for space exploration is forecast to increase to $30 billion by 2029. This forecast funding growth of about 50% over the coming decade reflects government support of large-scale, ambitious plans, which have started to materialize with the moon as a core focus.
Space exploration is not only attracting the interest of an increasing number of governments but also the private sector. From startups to large companies, players are seeking to exploit the commercial potential of space as human and robotic presence expands beyond Earth. The next decade promises numerous commercial exploration initiatives, significantly impacting the strategic planning of governments and their agenda for space exploration. New public-private contractual schemes are taking shape, reflecting the willingness from space agencies to act as both a strategic partner and a potential future customer of commercial services to achieve a sustainable model for space exploration. However, while enthusiasm for space exploration — and the moon in particular — is real, numerous missions remain uncertain due to a great number of external risk factors accentuated by the current global context.
The rise of exploration activities challenged by the current global context
The unprecedented context created by the COVID-19 pandemic is causing repercussions of varying degrees throughout the global economy. The precise impact of the current health and economic crisis are, as of today, still difficult to predict with exactitude. The space sector has already experienced the direct effects of the lockdown caused by the pandemic: Space missions operated by employees at home, science missions on standby, launches postponed, and manufacturing plans on hold are some of the examples that have challenged the daily activities of the space sector during the past months. However, as the world slowly returns to ‘normal’ operations, it is expected that space activities will do so as well. We are experiencing, for instance, the excitement of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, including the first crewed launch to the International Space Station from the United States since 2011. This summer will also see the launch of notable planetary exploration missions — if all proceeds as planned — such as NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover and the United Arab Emirates’ Mars HOPE orbiter.
Nonetheless, the space sector is not immune to the global international context and will experience the ripple effect of the economic fallout. It remains uncertain how readjustments in investments or new allocations will fully develop, as countries around the world might experience higher pressure created by the current turmoil. The impact of the pandemic is anticipated to vary greatly among countries and space verticals. Space exploration activities are long-term in nature and often experience inherent delays. While the current crisis may accentuate further potential delays, it is unlikely to disrupt governments’ long-term objectives. Space exploration stands high on the space agenda of leading government space programs due to its ties with national strategic interests. Recent announcements — such as NASA’s contracts awarded to American companies for the development of the lunar human landing system — are some of the examples that reaffirm governments’ ambitions in exploration despite current events. These milestones, nonetheless, are the result of the strategic planning and budget allocations that space agencies made over the past months.
The outlook for space exploration will also be largely influenced by the steps taken by the U.S. in the coming months, as the country remains to date the largest investor and a major driving force in defining the global strategy in space exploration. While the American moon-to-Mars exploration campaign has gained increased bipartisan support, the potential implications that a change of administration during the upcoming elections could have in exploration objectives remain debatable. Space exploration remains deeply tied to American politics as every new administration defines new objectives. The fact that lunar exploration has consolidated as a key strategic asset for many governments around the world, including China, might be a key factor for the U.S. to maintain a moon focus in its exploration strategy independent of a potential political change. However, even if the lunar objective prevails in the United States, questions would arise on the potential delays in programs (such as its moon 2024 objective or the lunar Gateway program), which could also be further stressed due to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. A deferment of exploration projects could have a negative effect on the current momentum of exploration initiatives, with detrimental effects to international and private partners.
Within the private sector, the increase in private investment in the past decade has facilitated the emergence of new commercial exploration initiatives. Despite this increase, the total private funding in space exploration continues to be, to date, moderate and with investments concentrated only on a rather limited number of actors. Investors remain more reluctant to fund space exploration initiatives due to the inherent high risks and long-term vision of this field, a reluctance which may be further exacerbated by the current global context. The pandemic crisis might additionally accelerate preexisting fragile conditions of startups, challenging their survival. Support from the governments as a customer and a partner will continue to be (even more) critical to the success of commercial initiatives.
Despite the current global scene and the many challenges associated with it, the coming decade may well present opportunities for many. Global leading actors are expected to reinforce their position, while new entrants might face higher difficulties to enter an increasingly competitive field. International collaboration and public-private cooperation are expected to continue consolidating as an essential requisite in the public stakeholders’ exploration strategy and road map to achieve a sustainable model for space exploration moving forward.
Natalia Larrea is a principal advisor at Euroconsult and chief editor of the “Prospects for Space Exploration” research.
This article originally appeared in the June 15, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.