SAN FRANCISCO — The United States remains the world’s dominant space power. Its position relative to its peers, however, has eroded steadily during the past five years in a market that is becoming increasingly competitive with the entrance of new players, according to a report released Oct. 3 by Futron Corp., a consulting firm based in Bethesda, Md.
In its fifth annual “2012 Space Competitiveness Index: A Comparative Analysis of How Countries Invest in and Benefit from Space Industry,” Futron assessed the relative strengths and weaknesses of government and commercial programs as well as the work force needed to support those endeavors. While many other countries are expanding space capabilities, the U.S. space program is in a period of “transition” and “uncertainty,” the report said.
That uncertainty stems, in part, from the White House’s decision to hand off to private companies the job of ferrying astronauts and cargo to low Earth orbit while NASA refocuses its efforts on developing technology to explore more distant targets including asteroids and Mars. In addition, it is unclear what impact legislation aimed at reducing the U.S. federal deficit will have on military and civil space programs. Since NASA retired the space shuttle, “there is also uncertainty associated with NASA’s contractor workforce reductions and questions of long-term space vision and priorities,” Futron analyst David Vaccaro said by email. “Even after the introduction of the National Space Policy, the actual formal implementation of policy elements can still lag.”
Russia, meanwhile, leads the world in space launch, a role it “promises to retain” in the near future as its Progress and Soyuz rockets transport astronauts and cargo to and from the international space station, the report said. Russia’s ability, first demonstrated in October 2011, to launch Soyuz rockets from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, will further cement that nation’s pre-eminent position in space transportation. “These strengths, however, are offset by [Russia’s] weaknesses in retention of human capital talent,” the report added.
The Futron report included an analysis of decade-long space trends. It noted, for example, that between 2002 and 2012, Russia conducted 255 of the 640 successful space launches worldwide, or 40 percent of the total. During the same period, the United States successfully launched 191 rockets to claim 30 percent of the market, China captured 14 percent of the market with 87 launches and Europe claimed 9 percent of the market with 61 launches.
The United States, Russia, Europe and China also led the world in satellite manufacturing from 2002 to 2012. The United States produced 388 spacecraft, 38 percent of the 1,086 manufactured worldwide. During the same period, Russia built 216 spacecraft to claim 20 percent of the market, Europe built 187 or 17 percent of the total, and China produced 99 spacecraft to claim 9 percent of the market, the report said.
For the first time in 2012, China performed more space launches than the United States, a fact that demonstrates the Chinese commitment to a vigorous space program. At the same time, the Chinese government increased its investment in space-related education programs and civilian research institutes, which further strengthens its national space program, the report said.
Europe as a whole is benefiting from the integrated approach to space activity adopted by its nations as well as “assertive space export financing” and national space initiatives, including those in the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic and Estonia, that complement the integrated European program, according to the report.
During the first four years it was produced, Futron’s Space Competitiveness Index focused exclusively on 10 space powers: the United States, Japan, China, Russia, India, Canada, Israel, Brazil, South Korea and Europe, which the index lists as a single competitor in the space market. The 2012 study includes five additional nations: Argentina, Australia, Iran, South Africa and Ukraine, which the report called “emerging space leaders.”
In that group, Iran has taken the lead. “Iran has made faster progress than any other newly emergent space nation,” the report said, adding that geopolitical concerns and the response of other nations are likely to influence the direction of Iranian space programs.
The report also predicted that South Korea will continue to strive for an independent spaceflight capability in spite of the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1’s failure to reach orbit in June 2010 and August 2009. Those unsuccessful launches produced a setback for South Korea’s space program but did not diminish the determination of national leaders to establish a launch program, according to the report.