The space sector is changing. If the rapid development continues, will we soon think of rockets as just another part of the transport system?
Elon Musk’s giant new rocket just flew again. A monster of engineering, it is also a colossal milestone in the developing global commercial space sector and intended for service to and from Mars. SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket has already undertaken 84 missions so far this year, and almost all have seen the boosters land and get refurbished for reuse. Most people don’t even get excited about these weekly technological marvels anymore. Crewed commercial missions to ISS are now routine. China has a manned space station in orbit to rival the ISS and commercial ones are in development. There are around 7,000 operational satellites in orbit.
But the launch market remains thin. SpaceX dominates heavy lift and competitors like Blue Origin, ULA and ArianneGroup seem a long way behind. When (if?) SpaceX’s new Starship enters commercial service, it may cement SpaceX’s dominance for another decade.
Smaller rockets are more of a mixed bag with some promising startups – some of which have even successfully flown. Rocket Lab from New Zealand lead the pack and now have launch facilities in the USA as well. Only a handful of others have managed to reach orbit, but there are many still in the race. Meanwhile states are developing and launching new vehicles – particularly India and China.
UK aspirations are high – but modest compared to the global market. Six new spaceports are in development and the first domestic launch in January from Cornwall showed that UK infrastructure and regulation can work – even if Virgin’s rocket failed. With designs on launching smaller orbital rockets or making suborbital flights, domestic rocket companies are quietly making steady progress like Skyrora in Scotland, while imported rockets from companies like ABL and HyImpulse are also planning to launch from the UK soon. When Connected Economics worked on the business plan for Spaceport Cornwall back in 2017, the hope was for tens of launches a year by now. That may happen in future but still looks a long way off.
So where does all of this leave us? I spend about half my time on space and half on transport and other infrastructure. I’ve been waiting for signs of these markets converging as commercial rocket technology matured. Cost reductions are happening, and you can now book a slot for your satellite on scheduled ‘ride share‘ missions – the closest we have to a space ‘bus’. All this is still a long way from the science fiction future of bustling spaceports. There are plenty of examples of things moving in the opposite direction with lack of competition partly driving vertical integration. Companies like Rocket Lab think they can grab value by combining launch with a wider space systems business.
So when will we see rockets becoming just another work-a-day part of our logistics and transport system? For the space economy to take off it needs to accelerate competition to keep downward pressure on costs across the spectrum of launch systems. Your bus to Mars is coming, but not any time soon.