Unfortunately, reality failed to live up to expectations. Once it became clear that the Soviet Union wasn’t going to challenge US dominance in human space flight, the sense of urgency that had driven progress in the 1960s evaporated.
Without the political will or financial reward to incentivise new efforts, few dared tackle the challenges of developing rockets and satellites on their own. The space race slowed from a sprint to a stroll and the lack of innovation saw launch costs stagnate at an eye-watering $10,000/kg for the remainder of the 20th century. That’s astounding when you consider how much the rest of the world changed over that same period. Imagine if cars and computers hadn’t improved since the 1970s either.
2001 came and went without a Space Odyssey, but it was significant for space flight in a less obvious way. The emergence of software and ecommerce companies on the US West Coast led to several young entrepreneurs — and life-long science fiction fans — amassing new wealth. Frustrated by the chronic lack of progress in space, they decided to take matters into their own hands.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin, Tesla’s Elon Musk founded SpaceX, and Microsoft’s Paul Allen co-founded Mojave Aerospace Ventures and partnered with Virgin’s Richard Branson.
Despite lofty ambitions, these young companies remained grounded in pragmatism. They recognised that spacecraft had to become genuinely reusable if the space industry was to grow further and become self-sufficient. And so, for the last two decades, they have been investing in the engineering capabilities and infrastructure needed to make this a reality.
Thanks to these efforts, costs have fallen to roughly $1,000/kg today, but there is no intention to stop here. Instead, the pace of innovation is accelerating. Next-generation vehicles are being designed and tested to realise costs as low as $50/kg within the next decade.
This will usher in a host of new commercial applications that, not too long ago, would have been dismissed as science fiction.