Like the monolithic and infallible Weyland-Yutani of the Alien and Predator film/media franchise, modern day spaceflight is reserved for the political superpowers of Earth and the associated mega-corporations that dominate the technologies and capabilities of spaceflight. Low-cost, democratized spaceflight accessible to all citizens of Earth has long been a dream of space pioneers since even before the days of Wernher von Braun (the brains behind both the Nazi V-2 “Vengeance Weapon” and the NASA Apollo missions to the Moon launched atop Saturn V rockets). Now, in the first couple decades of the 21st century, could that dream finally be approaching reality?
MegaCorps by country/region
GenCorp (USA): GenCorp is the parent company of Aerojet Rocketdyne, a leading US manufacturer of rocket engines. Aerojet Rocketdyne was formed in 2013 in a merger between two former competitors: Aerojet and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. Even before their merger both companies were leaders in rocket engine and spaceflight propulsion technologies and manufacturing. With its suspiciously generic corporate name on par with those of the faceless bureaucratic megacorps that dominate the speculative futures of cyberpunk fiction, GenCorp now has a near monopoly of America’s domestic rocket engine production capability and the existing contracts that came with the two former rivals.
GenCorp’s Aerojet Rocketdyne currently provides rocket engines to United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV and Atlas V launch vehicles, the proposed Space Launch System project (NASA managed but manufactured by ULA partners, The Boeing Company and Lockheed Martin) and manages the import of Russian-made RD-180 engines through RD AMROSS, its joint venture with Russian manufacturer Energomash (United Rocket and Space Corporation).
United Launch Alliance (USA): United Launch Alliance is a joint venture between two of the largest defense industry and aerospace companies in the world: Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company. This “alliance” formed in 2006 climbing out of the chaos of conspiracy, corruption, and corporate espionage: an origin story any fictional malevolent megacorp would be proud of.
In the last decade of the 20th century, the US military recognized the need to upgrade its aging fleet of spacelift vehicles and supplement the capabilities of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet which was occupied with the construction of International Space Station orbital research outpost. To meet this new demand, the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program was started in 1995. In the following years, an engineer working for Lockheed on their EELV proposal (the Atlas V launch vehicle) held clandestine meetings with Boeing officials involved with their EELV proposal (the Delta IV launch vehicle). Within six months of this first meeting, the Lockheed engineer had left his old job and was hired in a senior engineering position with Boeing’s EELV office where he continued to supply proprietary Lockheed documents to his new coworkers.
When contract awards were assigned, Boeing ended up with 19 of the 28 launch contracts and Lockheed with the remaining 9. Evidence of foul play finally came to light in 1999 due to the ethical vigilance of several Boeing employees who became suspicious of corporate espionage involving their competitor’s proprietary documents. Boeing and Air Force legal teams investigated, and the resulting litigation over several years led to two Boeing engineers (one being the former Lockheed engineer) being fired and cancellation of all the contracts previously awarded to Boeing (re-assigning those launch contracts to Lockheed).
Following the investigations, Boeing and Lockheed penned an agreement to drop all civil litigation between the two competitors if their space launch services could be merged into one joint venture: United Launch Alliance. In 2006, with the support of the Pentagon (wishing to bring calm to the espionage situation and see the success of the EELV program), ULA gained anti-trust clearance from the Federal Trade Commission. This granted them immunity to the anti-monopoly laws and allowed them to begin operation as the only provider of military space access in the US.
Orbital ATK (USA): Orbital ATK will be the result of a merger currently in progress between two established aerospace and defense contractors: Alliant Techsystems (ATK) and the spacecraft/launch vehicle company Orbital Sciences. Both companies have a proven track record in their respective fields: ATK with its weapons and missile systems for the US military and its allies (as well as the iconic white cylindrical Solid Rocket Boosters that helped power NASA’s Space Shuttle), and Orbital Sciences with its family of small to medium launch vehicles and spacecraft built for customers including NASA and the Department of Defense. This new corporation with merged assets will allow Orbital ATK to better combat the current US spaceflight megacorps ULA and GenCorp.
Orbital’s current launch site is the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island off the coast of Virginia. For nearly a decade they’ve successfully launched their Minotaur and Antares family of rockets. This relatively new launch site is opening up competition with the traditional launch facilities located in Florida (home of the majority of ULA’s launches) and allowing smaller spaceflight companies and emerging megacorps like Orbital ATK to have a launch facility independent of their competitors.
Roscosmos United Rocket and Space Corporation (Russia): The newly created United Rocket and Space Corporation is the result of an effort by the government of the Russian Federation to re-nationalize their spaceflight industry. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 20th century, the then-nationalized spaceflight industry was allowed to transition into the private market in a new capitalist environment. But just over two decades later, the Russian Federation has already began taking measures to re-nationalize those corporations under a new banner of a joint-stock company.
United Rocket and Space Corporation will control a majority share in Energia, the workhorse of Russian spaceflight. Officially named OAO S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, they can be credited with bringing in the space age with the first orbital flight of Sputnik in 1957 after being launched by a modified Energia R-7 rocket. Today Energia dominates the Russian spaceflight scene as the main supplier to Roscosmos (the Russian civil space agency) with the production of spacecraft, launch vehicles, and space station modules. Energia produces the three-person Soyuz spacecraft which is currently the only method of transportation for crews to and from the International Space Station, as well as the robotic variant, Progress, which is used for cargo delivery to the orbital research outpost. Additionally, Energia built the modules that make up the Russian segment of the ISS.
Energomash is the prime manufacturer of rocket engines for Yuzmash, Energia, as well as United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket (brokered through joint venture RD AMROSS). Energomash is partially owned by Energia and has also been enveloped under the United Rocket and Space Corporation.
Sea Launch, a former joint venture between several companies including Boeing and Energia is now majority owned by Energia who purchases rockets from Ukrainian corporation Yuzmash, which formerly operated under the Soviet government within a secretive closed city.
Gazprom Space Systems, a subsidiary of Russian natural gas supplier Gazprom (also known as the former Soviet Ministry of Gas Industry and one of the largest corporations in the world) operates a fleet of orbital spacecraft. These spacecraft serve various roles including communication, remote sensing and providing television broadcast to Russian citizens. Gazprom Space Systems will fall under the United Rocket and Space Corporation as well, with their spacecraft being manufactured by Energia.
The United Rocket and Space Corporation will vertically integrate the spaceflight industry of the Russian Federation, allowing for spacecraft design, manufacturing, operation and even television content providing to fall under one umbrella and all acting in concert with the government of this superpower nation.
Airbus (EU): The Airbus Group is a multinational European aerospace and defense corporation initially founded in 2000 as the result of a merger between three leading European (French, German and Spanish) aircraft and military systems manufacturers to create a transnational aerospace and defense corporation. In January of 2014 it was reorganized to consolidate civil and military aircraft production as well as space vehicles.
Airbus Group’s Defense and Space division operates the Ariane 5 launch vehicle, workhorse of the European Space Agency, the smaller Vega launch vehicle and the unmanned Automated Transfer Vehicles that resupply the International Space Station. Soyuz rockets bought from Russian United Rocket and Space Corporation are also operated by Airbus Group for the ESA. These rockets all launch from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, a South American remnant of past European imperialism.
China Aerospace and Science Corporation (PRC): The state-owned CASC and its subsidiaries develop and manufacture the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) home-grown launch vehicles and spacecraft in addition to a variety of other high tech products including computers and communications equipment, medical devices, and weapon systems. The Long March family of rockets have provided the PRC with space access for their military and civil sattelites, and more recently, a robotic mission to the Moon and their own manned space program. The Shenzhou spacecraft has carried out several successful missions to low Earth orbit with crews of 3, including two missions to the PRC’s own space station, Tiangong-1.
Although barred from participation in multinational projects such as the International Space Station, within the realm of the Asian spaceflight megacorps, the PRC with CASC is leading the pack ahead of regional rivals India and Japan. This exclusion of the PRC from many efforts to share spaceflight knowledge across national borders has spurred CASC to develop their own manned spaceflight and space station program along with rigorous scientific and military space applications rivaling the American megacorps.
Indian Space Research Organization (India): As India’s state-owned space agency and space technology manufacturer, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) currently operates the successful Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, the latest derivative of their launch vehicle family. With the PSLV, ISRO has launched numerous government, scientific and commercial payloads. Chief among these, an ISRO robotic spacecraft is currently on its way to Mars, a big step for a relative newcomer to the realm of spaceflight and a show of force against it’s neighboring competitor, the PRC.
Mitsubishi (Japan): The Mitsubishi Heavy Industries company of the Japanese multinational conglomerate Mitsubishi Group manufactures the H-IIA launch vehicle used by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). This vehicle is used to launch civil, military and commercial payloads including the H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), a robotic resupply vehicle to send cargo to the ISS.
Heavy cooperation with the spaceflight industry and government of the US and the European Space Agency, especially with the International Space Station project, has given a boost to Japanese spaceflight industry and its competitiveness against the other Asian spaceflight megacorps.
Several recent trends in technology, and timing with balancing economic and military interests has given a jump-start to high tech industry including the realm of spaceflight. The advent of smaller more efficient electronics coming out of the consumer and mobile computing industry, software technologies from robotics and automation to big data analysis, new manufacturing processes and materials including 3D printing and carbon-fiber composites have all contributed to the increasing inertia of the new spaceflight industry, or newspace.
An influx of money into the pockets of internet entrepreneurs and silicon valley startups, and a combination of government efforts to both lower costs and at the same time increase capability and reliability of space systems has resulted in new spaceflight technology innovations. New companies with young talent, money from software engineers-turned-investors and experience of veteran spaceflight visionaries are beginning to sprout up in competition with the old established MegaCorps.
SpaceX: Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (better known as SpaceX), the brainchild of internet and technology entrepreneur Elon Musk (also CEO of Tesla Motors and Chairman of Solar City) and veteran rocket scientist Tom Mueller, has worked for over a decade to develop their Falcon rocket family and Dragon spacecraft.
As one of the more developed (and financially backed) newspace companies, SpaceX has been seen as the leader of the spaceflight upstarts challenging the established megacorps. This challenge has not fallen on deaf ears. SpaceX is viewed as a legitimate threat to the existing megacorps and that has resulted in recent legal battles and political maneuvering against ULA, Blue Origin, the US Air Force and even harsh words exchanged between Musk and Russian government officials via Twitter.
With sights set beyond its current innovative projects of reusable rockets and commercial manned spaceflight to low Earth orbit, SpaceX is chomping at the bit to colonize Mars and lead an off-world emigration into the Solar System.
Blue Origin: Started by internet entrepreneur Jeff Bezos (CEO Amazon.com), this spaceflight company also has its sights set on revolutionary space technologies such as reusable rockets and spacecraft, and increasing the population of humans living off-world.
Their recent partnering with Boeing (of spaceflight megacorp ULA) on a military funded reusable space-plane project (the DAPRA XS-1) echos past agreements when Blue Origin teamed up with ULA to win the rights to use an old NASA launch pad, which was subsequently sold to SpaceX.
Blue Origin’s technical talent and partnering with megacorp ULA may secure their position as a very competitive spaceflight megacorp of their own someday, or set them up to be acquired by ULA further expanding the current leader’s spaceflight capabilities.
XCOR: Best known for its development of the Lynx reusable suborbital spaceplane for tourism and science experiments, XCOR plans on eventually developing a successor to the Lynx that will provide cheap and reliable access to low Earth orbit for astronauts and payloads.
XCOR has also teamed up with fellow newspace company, Masten Space Systems, to develop their own proposal for the XS-1 reusable spaceplace.
Virgin Galactic: As part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, Virgin Galactic will offer suborbital rides to space for tourists on its SpaceShip Two as well as orbital access for small payloads.
It’s spacecraft technology was initially developed in the X-Prize competition a decade ago by aircraft manufacturer Scaled Composites, now a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman (defense and aerospace megacorp) and participant in the XS-1 project.
Masten Space Systems: Spaceflight startup Masten Space Systems has already established its technical ability by operating a fleet of small reusable suborbital launch vehicles. Besides testing new technologies for future planetary robotic landers for NASA, Masten has its sights set on fully reusable orbital launch vehicles. Their partnership with XCOR on the XS-1 project may see some of these visions become reality.
Bigelow Aerospace: Founded by Robert Bigelow, hotel real-estate entrepreneur, Bigelow Aerospace plans to build commercial orbital hotels and space stations. Building on technology initially pioneered by NASA, Bigelow’s expandable habitats will open up a new spaceflight industry of leasing orbital facilities, whether to wealthy individuals, scientific organizations or governments.
Bigelow has already partnered with spaceflight megacorp ULA, it’s subsidiary Boeing and newspace leader SpaceX in designing it’s orbital habitats to be compatible with their commercial crewed spacecraft and launch vehicles to ensure the availability of transportation to their orbital real-estate.
Planetary Resources: Founded in 2010 by space entrepreneurs Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson with the financial backing of individuals including Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, filmmaker and explorer James Cameron. The startup plans to mine asteroids that may contain valuable minerals (platinum group metals) for in-space manufacturing. They also plan to mine for water ice that can be sold to customers for human consumption on-board spacecraft or, as its constituent hydrogen and oxygen for use as rocket fuel at orbital fuel depots.
Being the first serious attempt to commercialize space mining, Planetary Resources is opening the doors to a whole new industry for spaceflight megacorps to pursue in the Solar System.
Deep Space Industries: Another asteroid mining firm that plans to offer fuel and space based manufacturing to support a growing space economy in the Solar System along with a variety of other products including space based solar power, communications platforms and radiation shielding technologies.
Moon Express: Started by silicon valley entrepreneurs, Moon Express is developing plans to send robotic spacecraft to the Moon and eventually begin a mining operation there. Moon Express is also pursuing the Google Lunar X-Prize, a $20 million reward for being the first private entity to accomplish a series of robotics tasks on the Lunar surface.
Before the first asteroid or plot of Lunar territory has been mined there has already been a spark of interest here on Earth and several competing companies have taken up the challenge of being the first to successfully harvest the Solar System for resources.
Golden Spike Company: Golden Spike Company was founded by former NASA administrators and has the financial backing of some former US politicians. They plan on offering commercial transportation services to and from the surface of the Moon.
The name of their company references the golden spike used to ceremoniously connect the two halves of the American Transcontinental Railroad, an industry that was no more megalithic and monopolized in the 19th century as spaceflight has become in the 21st. This name, although referencing the construction of a reliable transportation system from one end of a continent-spanning nation to the other, reinforces the notion that spaceflight may continue to be controlled by the wealthiest megacorps and superpower nations of Earth. It suggests that manifest destiny has not ended with the conquest by humans of our planet, but will extend far into the Solar System as far as our spaceships will take us.
Domination of the Solar System
The current spaceflight environment is dominated by the same megacorps that arose out of the tensions of the 20th century and since then have only further consolidated their assets into monopolies to control spaceflight access in their respective political regions. Left unchecked, these current megacorps could end up dominating the entire solar system as traditional government systems are left behind on Earth and corporate governance rules in space. As new companies arise to challenge the established megacorps, the hurdles they will have to overcome will be more than technological innovations but also political unwillingness to change and the massive amount of money that supports the current players. These new companies may have to resort to the same cutthroat tactics their predecessors have used to stay in power, leading to the ushering in of a new generation of megacorps to dominate the Solar System.