Reusable rockets could disrupt the space industry, and not always in a good way

Elon Musk’s SpaceX aims to launch its first flight-proven (read: gently used) orbital booster rocket this week from Cape Canaveral. If the rocket delivers its satellite cargo to space and returns successfully, it will be a new milestone in the race toward cheaper space access.

SpaceX believes that reusing boosters will allow it to cut prices by 30% on its Falcon 9 rocket. Musk’s rival space billionaire, Jeff Bezos, is expecting to test the high-powered engine of his reusable orbital rocket soon. And Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s joint space venture, United Launch Alliance, has a scheme to begin using orbital space tugs to cut the cost of space operations.

In other words, there’s a lot of money and mind-power going toward getting into space more easily. This episode of disruption has ignited a firestorm of funding for private space companies whose ideas for doing business in space have suddenly become more feasible. That promises to create a congestion problem.

“We don’t have the oversight in place yet to manage a massively growing space industry,” says Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, who is lead author of a new report on low-cost space access (pdf) and the US military. “The US government could be caught flat-footed in a lot of this, create a big space traffic management issue that could affect the military.”

The US armed forces are already heavily involved in space thanks to the Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center—still the world’s primary source for tracking objects in space—and to various intelligence and communications satellites. Schemes to launch thousands of new satellites in the years ahead will stress the center’s ability to help space operators avoid collisions. More investment in civil space monitoring and coordination will be necessary as they work to regulate this new marketplace.

But with cheaper access, ideas for making war in space have suddenly become more feasible, too.

Weaponized space

“One of the reasons we have not weaponized space before now is that it did not make sense to do so, it was too expensive relative to the terrestrial alternatives,” Harrison says. “[And] all the new military space missions that could become cost-feasible to the US could become cost-feasible for other countries, and create a lot of challenges.”

The report notes that low-cost space access could lead to plans to put missiles in space to strike satellites or targets on the ground, or to intercept and destroy missiles launched against friendly targets. More fancifully, lasers could be used for missile defense, and space vehicles could be used to deliver soldiers or supplies anywhere in the world within 45 minutes. And of course, any cheap rocket that can deliver cargo to low-earth orbit can deliver an explosive warhead to somewhere on earth.

It may be a decade or more before costs fall enough to make such missions feasible, but the analysts believe that they need to start preparing for the new realities.

“It’s going to vary a lot from country to country—the Europeans, the US, I would expect, are going to call for controls or not doing this kind of thing, not breaking the norms [against militarizing space],” Andrew Hunter, a former Department of Defense official and another author of the report, told Quartz. “If it’s Russia or China, if it’s to their strategic advantage to do something like this, I don’t know why they wouldn’t do this.”

China has already raised international anxiety with tests of anti-satellite weapons.

Commercial problems, commercial solutions

One perhaps counter-intuitive way to prepare, the analysts say, is to relax the rules on US space companies. Many are restricted in what they can export or which countries they can operate for national security reasons. Restrictions on US satellite firms enacted in the 1990s led much of the industry to migrate overseas, and many of the largest satellite constellations are now operated by European firms.

“The market effect was profound and very quick—we lost huge market share as a result of those restrictions,” Hunter told Quartz. “There is a choice for [the US Department of Defense]: They can lean against the possibility of growing commercial space or they can lean into it….ultimately, it will be to the military’s advantage to lean in.”

Leaning in may be a bit of a cultural challenge, if SpaceX’s legal battles to win the right to bid on contracts to launch military or spy satellites are any indicator. But if new space companies continue to win market share, the Pentagon may have no choice but to work with them.

And beyond concerns over what nations may do with new space capabilities, there is the question of what non-state actors will do with tools that once belonged exclusively to governments. Some of that may be productive: CSIS itself uses satellite photography to track China’s military build-up in the South China Sea, and satellite imagery provided early evidence of Russia’s culpability in the downing of the airliner MH-17. Some uses, though, may prove pernicious.

“The explosion of space commerce could be like the explosion of international trade or effective intergovernmental entities,” Hunter says. “They have power, they have usefulness, they also can cause disruption and disenchantment and dissatisfaction for people who feel like they are not part of that story.”

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