Space Business: Rush Hour

The most ambitious space exploration plans in decades.

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Dear readers,

Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: A space rush (not race), Virgin Orbit’s struggles, and Venusian organics.

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“We have crazy players in space as well, and we have rogue states there, and we have new hybrid attacks,” French president Emmanuel Macron warned during a visit to NASA headquarters in Washington with US vice president Kamala Harris.

It’s not a bad description of the state of play, if you also add a massive surge in government space exploration and private space companies. As for the “crazy players,” perhaps he was referencing Elon Musk.


This week alone, NASA’s Orion spacecraft is orbiting the Moon in preparation for a crewed trip as soon as next year, and an astronaut landing by the end of the decade. China launched three astronauts to complete construction on its new space station. And at press time, SpaceX is set to launch a privately built Japanese lunar lander.

And that’s just what’s active now. Also this week, the European Space Agency announced its largest budget ever. South Korea’s president said he would create a national space agency to put a robotic lander on the Moon by 2032. And China unveiled its ambitious plans for lunar exploration, which include a more or less symbolic crewed landing before 2030 followed by a vision of ambitious robotic activity.


This unprecedented swell of global space activity compares with the initial Cold War surge in space investment. But are we really back in a space race?

From a US point of view, the answer is no—despite plenty of rhetoric about China supplanting the US as the top space power. Casey Dreier, a space policy expert at the Planetary Society, carefully tracks historical spending on the US space program. “How important is it for the US and its allies to win this moon race?” he asks. “We’re not seeing money being spent as if it is.” For context, the Artemis moon program is about 20% of NASA’s total budget.


“We want space exploration, we don’t want another competitive moon race,” Dreier says. “That ultimately didn’t result in a sustaining program, and a race like that is a lagging indicator of pretty bad geopolitical dynamics on the Earth.”

After the success of the Apollo program, he notes, “the political world was like, ‘Great, we won.’ NASA was like, ‘let’s keeping doing this.’ And politicians said, ‘why?’”


That’s one reason why the current generation of space policymakers has emphasized the diplomatic, economic, and scientific goals of the Artemis program as much as its geopolitical importance.

And even the geopolitical messaging is different than it was back in the old days. Back then, US leaders focused on Soviet competition. Today, the US is pushing the Artemis Accords, a set of principles for international cooperation in space along democratic and capitalist lines; these principles have attracted the support of nearly two dozen nations, including Macron’s France, Brazil, Japan, Singapore, and the UK. Japan has plans to send an astronaut on one of the Artemis missions, while the ESA has played a key role in developing the Orion spacecraft and the future Lunar Gateway station set for orbit around the Moon.


You’ll note there’s not a lot of Russia to be found in this discussion. While Roscosmos may be a helpful junior partner to China’s space ambitions, a lack of funding and access to the global market for high-tech components leaves the space power sidelined in the exploration surge.

Still, there’s no doubt public opinion would be shaken if China is the first nation to put people on the Moon in the 21st century. That’s why so much for the US hinges on the successful completion of the Artemis 1 mission—and the execution of private companies. Those vital contributions include Spacex’s Starship, which will ferry people down to the lunar surface; Axiom’s spacesuit project; and a passel of robotic reconnaissance missions.


“From here on out, [the question is] hardware,” Dreier says of the path to the Moon. “When the inevitable budget crunch happens, how much is Congress going to protect the new elements of Artemis versus the SLS and Orion operations?”


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Mauna Loa, one of the world’s largest volcanos, has started erupting again for the first time in 38 years. Maxar, the satellite imagery firm, created this fascinating composite image by observing the lava flows at night on Nov. 28 and layering that image over a daytime image of the volcano itself. Now, you can see how the 2 km flow of hot lava moves over the terrain.

Image for article titled Space Business: Rush Hour
Image: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies



Virgin Orbit abandons fundraising plans. The publicly traded air launch company said last week it would not sell new securities as its stock price and cash reserves decline.

Starship booster’s longest test fire. SpaceX engineers fired 11 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy booster for 12 seconds, another step toward an eventual flight test of the vehicle that NASA wants to carry astronauts to the lunar surface. The booster will need to fire 33 Raptor engines for a minute or more to achieve that goal.


Lockheed Martin to build three new GPS satellites. The defense contractor will be paid $744 million to add three more spacecraft to the premier navigation and timing constellation, a follow-on from a Defense Department contract it originally won in 2018.

NASA cans GeoCarb. After it burned through its budget, NASA canceled an overbudget program that would have deployed space sensors to detect greenhouse gasses, and is now turning to private companies like Canada’s GHGSat for the data.


Is there life on Venus? Probably not. You may remember a 2020 report of organic compounds detected in the Venusian atmosphere, but new NASA data suggests that the compound in question, phosphine, is not to be found on the planet.

Your pal,


This was issue 160 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your visions for democracy and capitalism on the Moon, space company fundraising news, tips, and informed opinions to