Battle for orbit: American rocketeers rewrite the rules

An Ariane 5 rocket with a R3,2 billion satellite payload awaits launch in French Guiana.
Date:27 March 2013 Author: Joe Pappalardo Tags:, , , , , ,

American rocketeers are attempting to reclaim a share of the lucrative satellite launch market from foreign firms. To win, they’re rewriting the rules and, in the process, ushering in a new era of the space industry.

Most Americans don’t know it, but the majority of the satellite services they enjoy use hardware lofted by European Union rockets. (The big exception is GPS, which is operated by the US Air Force.) Nearly half of American-owned commercial satellites are launched from the EU spaceport in Kourou.

French Guiana’s isolated jungle spaceport is not the only place where nations launch private-sector sats. Russia and China offer their services on the open market, and government-backed newcomers in Japan and India promise more competition ahead.

But in the US, something different is happening: private companies, lightly subsidised by the US government but operating on their own, are entering the commercial launch industry. If these US upstarts succeed, they could drive prices down and use Earth’s orbit to connect remote areas, empower personal electronics and create high-tech jobs.

This is the 21st century’s space race – one you’ve probably never heard of.

Read more in PM’s Apr 2013 issue – on sale 25 March.