10 Star-Gazing Startups Seeking Trans-Galactic Free Trade Agreements

May 1, 2017 3:10 pm
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The race to conquer the cosmos kicked off when the Soviet Union launched a beachball-sized satellite named Sputnik in 1957. It peaked when two Americans walked on the moon 12 years later.

The space shuttle program later proved you could reuse spacecraft, though the cost was the lives of two crews on missions that went awry before that program ran out of gas and goals and was abandoned.

Since then, NASA’s emphasis has been on unmanned probes prowling the solar system and producing jaw-dropping photos — like those taken April 26 when the Cassini unmanned ship sliced through Saturn’s rings — as well as powerful telescopes identifying thousands of exoplanets with the potential for life as we puny humans pretend to know it.

But the race to send real people beyond the somewhat stagnant International Space Station has become a corporate affair rife with startups run by big tycoons with Jupiter-sized egos in a race of their own to colonize, commodify and make human-centered space commerce commonplace.

In the shadow of interstellar showmen like rocket entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, there are even startups humbly focusing on cleaning up six decades of clutter littering the spaceways with hazardous, high-speed junk.

Despite the dominance of NASA and its traditional corporate partners, space has become the new frontier of privateers out to go where no government regulation has gone before.

Deregulate The Outer Limits, Spaced-Out CEOs Tell Congress

Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas), who doesn’t believe in global warming but chairs a subcommittee on space, science and competitiveness, says Americans have to corner the private space market before anybody else does.

“As we look to the future of American free enterprise and settlement in space, we should also thoroughly review the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty, which was written and enacted in a very different time and era in 1967,” Cruz said during a hearing with space CEOs on April 26. “It’s important that Congress evaluate how that treaty, enacted 50 years ago, will impact new and innovative activity within space.”

Cruz didn’t elaborate, but space commercialization advocates want the right to claim and mine whatever heavenly bodies are out there. And if a bit of Jovian moon or piece of Uranus is claimed, there should be zones of noninterference from competitors.

“I believe that the Congress should concern itself with the necessary business and regulatory environment for habitats to serve as the backbone for all activities in space,” Robert T. Bigelow, a former motel magnate and founder of Bigelow Aerospace, LLC, which builds space habitats.


Here, countdown style, are 10 of the most active or just plain interesting players in the race for private-sector space.

  • 10) Bigelow Aerospace wants to pepper the cosmos with habitats to serve as waystations to other places. It has fired three prototypes in space already and has plans to put two of its own space stations in orbit by the end of 2020.
  • 9) Blue Origin, the brainchild of Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos, who already has tested reusable rockets and plans to offer trips to space to well-heeled tourists as early as next year. Bezos is engaged in a mano-a-mano competition with Elon Musk.
  • 8) Made in Space, Inc., founded by former intellectual property attorney Andrew Rush, the Silicon Valley-based is working on in-space manufacturing, 3d printing in space and space colonization-related technologies.
  • 7) Virgin Galactic, which will offer commercial human spaceflight; The Spaceship Company, which is producing the vehicles; and Virgin Orbit, which will build satellites comprise the three-pronged assault on the stars by Virgin Atlantic Airways Limited chief Richard Branson, who said on April 28 that the timetable for taking him and others into space is still uncertain after a fatal test flight accident in 2014.
  • 6) Lockheed Martin Space Systems. OK, nowhere near a startup. But the space-faring arm of Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE:LMT) is the prime contractor on NASA's Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the only spacecraft designed for deep space exploration. Orion will transport humans to interplanetary destinations such as the moon and eventually Mars. It’s scheduled for a test flight next year.
  • 5) Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX, the venture of Musk, founder of Tesla Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA), which already has launched a reusable orbital rocket and had another one blow up. SpaceX plans to send two people on a trip around the moon next year. “They have already paid a significant deposit to do a Moon mission,” the company said.
  • 4) Israeli–Swiss startup SpacePharma, which has a nanosatellite the size of a tissue box orbiting Earth that lets scientists conduct experiments in a gravity-free environment. The first experiments were conducted in March. In space, cells and molecules behave differently, helping researchers make discoveries in fields from medicine to agriculture.
  • 3) Rocket Lab, an American-New Zealand space company with $1 billion in financing, has built its first launch site in California and is working on its Electron rocket. Rocket Lab’s mission is to provide frequent launches for frustrated firms waiting years to send their satellites into space.
  • 2) NovaWurks intends to salvage dead satellites and restart them. It has a 42.6 million deal with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
  • 1) Astroscale, a company with Japanese backing, plans to launch a fleet of small satellites with an adhesive surface to grab space debris and clear it from main orbital highways.

We Have Liftoff

There are more, elbowing each other for venture capital and cutting mutually beneficial deals to put each other’s payloads in their respective rockets and make money off the most glamourous of endeavors. They want protection to mine the limitless resources of the infinite expanse.

They want a space treaty forged during the Cold War revamped to fit a world now ruled by market forces.

“That treaty was cast in a timeframe where the United States and Russia didn’t know who was going to be reaching the moon first.” Bigelow told the Cruz committee.

It was a time when nobody thought “commercial folks would have the wherewithal or the audacity to be thinking about traveling to the moon and conducting business there.”

Related Links:

SpaceX Reopens Historic Launch Site, Advances American Position In International Space Marathon

Major Players In Billionaire Space Race

The Astronomical Price Of Moon Tourism

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