Opinion: backed by billionaires not governments, a new space race is afoot and this one will open up a whole new frontier

By Niamh HigginsNordic Bioscience and University of Copenhagen

Space. The mere word conjures up images of Spielberg level adventures with astronauts and asteroids, distant galaxies, an expansive universe and perhaps even little green aliens. Apollo, Sputnik, NASA, Gagarin and Aldrin were household names to the generation who witnessed the first humans to walk on the Moon. 

But that was 50 years ago. What’s happened since then? And why can’t we just hop on a rocket and holiday beyond Earth by now? And why are people suddenly talking about space again. 

Where does Earth end and space begin? 

At an altitude of 100km from Earth’s surface, the Karman Line has been widely accepted as the boundary between space and us. However, recent research puts forward a compelling case that we are actually closer to space than we originally thought. Based upon updated data and modelling analyses, the point at which Earth’s atmosphere meets space may be only 80km away.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, science journalist Sean Duke reports on a new European space mission aiming to find the Earth-like exoplanets most likely to harbour life

Space pursuits can be classified into suborbital, orbital and deep space. At an altitude of 160-2000km, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) has become the playground for much of our current space activity. There are even people living in LEO right now. 

Today, anywhere between three to six humans (sometimes even more) are 400km from home, living onboard the International Space Station orbiting our planet at 28,800 km/h (that’s 240 times faster than the maximum speed we can drive on Irish roads). The station has been continuously inhabited for 19 years, yet venturing out into space still seems like just a dream to most of us. So why can’t we holiday in space yet?

There are many factors at play and one word captures it nicely: competition. Competition between the two superpowers of the Cold War, the former Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States, launched the Space Race. While the USSR won many early battle with the first satellite (Sputnik, 1957) and first human into space (Yuri Gagarin, 1961), the Americans got us all the way to the moon via their ambitious Apollo programme in 1969.

From RTÉ One Six News in April 2011, Kathleen MacMahon reports on Russia celebrating the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human to journey into outer space in 1961

By the 1970s, relations between the two rivals improved, spending on space was drastically reduced and there was a global lull in activity which lasted for many decades. The sector has experienced a notable increase in momentum over the last decade or so, and we are now experiencing a surge in space activity, a renaissance of sorts. 

How did space become such a hot topic again?

The NewSpace Race is dominated by billionaires and not political superpowers. Historically, space has been dominated by national space agencies and large, established aerospace companies. But times are changing. Backed by charismatic billionaires with deep pockets and futuristic dreams to explore, colonise and profit from space, the NewSpace revolution is well underway. 

NewSpace is the term used to describe a bustling new cohort of entrepreneurial private aerospace companies who are disrupting space industry norms, creating new niches and challenging the boundaries of what’s possible. 

From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning Show, Silicon Republic's John Kennedy profiles Elon Musk

Many of theses new players entered the industry with computing backgrounds and brought a Silicon Valley-like mentality to space. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos is behind Blue Origin, the late Paul G. Allen (co-founder Microsoft) established Vulcan Aerospace, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic and the infamous maverick Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla) founded SpaceX.

Reusable rockets and space tourists

Imagine having to throw away a plane after each flight, forcing you to fund and construct an entirely new vehicle from scratch each time you want to travel. Pretty inconvenient right? Historically, orbital rockets have been entirely expendable and each new mission would require a new rocket, making them time consuming, complex and astronomically expensive endeavours.

Between 2016 and 2017, SpaceX made history by achieving the impossible: they landed a rocket and subsequently reused that rocket for another launch and landed it again. The company’s strategy has been to safely return launch vehicles to earth in order to reuse rocket components and fly them again multiple times to reduce build times and costs. This concept of sustainability is a paradigm shift in the industry and is expected to make space significantly more accessible.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Dr David McKeon, Assistant Professor at the School of Mechanical and Material Engineering at UCD, explains the importance of the launch of Elon Musk's new rocket, the Falcon Heavy

In December 2018, Virgin Galactic's manned spaceship, SpaceShipTwo reached space for the first time and aims to sell tickets at $250,000 each to space tourists in the near future. These type of NewSpace companies are developing and licencing technologies to achieve fasters, better, reusable, cheaper and new access to space.

The competition that relaunched the space industry

This space sector revival can arguably be traced back to Peter Diamandis. He wanted to communicate the benefits of a strong space programme to the public, industry and government, in the hopes of reigniting the national excitement for space in the United States. As a student ,he co-founded the student space group; Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) and later the International Space University (ISU) and later founded the XPRIZE Foundation

In the absence of warfare, prizes can be useful surrogates to inject excitement, competition and propel technology and industries forward. In the 1920s, the $25,000 the Orteig prize was offered to the first aviators to fly non-stop between New York and Paris. In pursuit of this prize, seven teams spent $400,000, resulting in a 16-fold investment of the prize purse towards long distance air travel and aeronautical advances. Charles Lindbergh went on to win the prize in 1927 aboard Spirit of St. Louis. 

From RTÉ One's Nine News, a report on the first flight of Virgin Galactic Space Ship II in 2013

Inspired by this, Diamandis set up a competition to mimic these successes and inject excitement and funding toward space flight. In 1996, the XPRIZE competition was launched to incentivise innovation and reignite excitement for the space industry. $10 million was promised to the first private team who could build a reliable, reusable manned spaceship. The successful team also needed to carry three people into space twice within two weeks.

The competition piqued the interest of deep-pocketed investors in the process, including Paul G. Allen and Richard Branson. In 2004, in the dusty Mojave Desert on the 47th anniversary of Sputnik, the winner was revealed to be Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites. Internationally, 26 teams entered the competition and over $100 million was spent in pursuit of the prize. The competition was a pivotal point in the history of private space industry which catapulted space back into the public domain and opened up a billion dollar market for NewSpace. 

How’s Ireland faring in the space sector?

Ireland has a rich astronomical legacy, from Newgrange to the discoveries of quaternions by William Rowan and pulsars by Jocelyn Bell Burnell. In 1991, we even put forward four Irish candidates for astronaut selection to the European Space Agency (ESA). Unfortunately, mission changes coupled with Ireland’s low investment in the agency’s Human Space Programme, ensured that an Irish crew slot could never materialise. 

From RTÉ Archives, a 1991 episode of Kenny Live about Ireland's would-be astronauts

As a member of ESA since 1975, Ireland’s primary focus in the space sector have been in the areas of electronics, software, advanced materials and propulsion. Many universities throughout the country are engaged in space activities. In 2017, Cork was at the epicentre of Irish space industry when the International Space University’s, prestigious Space Studies Programme was held here for the first time. 

Students at UCD are vying to, build, launch and get Ireland's first satellite EIRSAT-1 (Educational Irish Research Satellite-1) into orbit by 2020 through a European Space Agency  programme. Researchers at the NICB in DCU are bridging spaceflight medicine and biology to combat metabolic changes experienced by astronauts. 60 Irish companies have partnerships with the agency ranging, from medical diagnostic devices for spaceflight (Radisens Diagnostics) to "sunscreen for satellites" at ENBIO

From a Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory Science Week 2018 event about Ireland's astronauts from 1991

The Irish government is setting aside €9.4 billion in strategic investment in their 2040 plan over the coming decade for business, enterprise and innovation. A portion of these funds will be used for an Irish New Space Technologies Programme. This revival may pave the way for expanded career routes in space from entrepreneurs and space lawyers to asteroid miners and cyber security professionals. So would you consider a career in space?

Niamh Higgins is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Early Stage Research Fellow and former researcher at the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology (NICB) who is currently based at the Nordic Bioscience and University of Copenhagen.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ