It was a year of momentous events in the space sector, to be sure, but 2019’s true significance may ultimately be that it was marked by geopolitical and commercial competition that, for the past decade, has been slowly simmering up to an estimated $400bn economy.
These mighty crosscurrents have created an urgency, not seen in decades, that is compelling nations and luring Wall Street to bank on commercial space actors large and small – and launching the space sector into what could be a multitrillion-dollar industry by 2040.
The moon race
There’s more than a pinch of deja vu here. In the Cold War era, the former Soviet Union and the US invested treasure and national pride into being the first to have astronauts stroll amongst the moon’s dust-covered craters. The new race is about staking and maintaining claims on high-value lunar resources: water and rare-earth minerals.
The decade opened with China announcing its aim to land astronauts on the moon in 2025. In 2019, 50 years after the Apollo 11 mission, the US administration countered by setting 2024 as its crewed moonshot deadline.
The next decade is starting without a US-made spacecraft certified for human spaceflight, but NASA has tapped two commercial partners, Boeing and SpaceX, to change that status in the first half of 2020. US President Mike Pence said that by then, the US would again launch astronauts into Low Earth Orbit – a first since NASA’s space shuttle fleet was decommissioned in 2011. After a series of setbacks, neither space company has committed to that timeline.
However, it was in January that China’s Chang’e-4 lunar lander mission to the South Pole set the year’s pace. While it was that nation’s second successful lunar landing – the first being in 2013 – it was the first time any nation had touched down on the far side of the moon. Nevertheless, China still has a lot to prove. The rising space power should end the year with the third test of its mammoth rocket, the Long March 5, the last launch of which failed in 2017.
Vying for a piece of the moon pie, Israel’s Beresheet lander in April shattered when it smashed into the moon’s southern polar region. Six months later, in September, India’s Vikram lander – part of the Chandrayaan-2 mission – became the latest lunar fatality.