A new space race is on. A study by Euroconsult finds that even as global government spending on space programmes in 2013 fell by $800 million from the year before, budgetary allocations for beyond-Earth pursuits rose in emerging economies, including India. It also says the number of countries interested in space is on the rise and the lowered budgets could mean technological innovation pushing down costs. While there is money to be made from space programmes—countries with successful ones could charge for services—the US could end up winning the race, simply by changing the game early on. Having cut the space budget by $8.8 billion—from the 2009 peak —to $38.7 billion in 2013, the country is now boosting private sector participation in space exploration.
US space agency National Space and Aeronautics Administration (Nasa) has invited proposals from companies for its Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown programme. Nasa will offer its technology and facilities to the winning bidder to deliver small payloads on the Moon, though the programme will strictly be a “no funds exchanged” one. Analysts may have jumped the gun claiming that this marks the birth of mining of the Moon by man—the 1967 Outer Space Treaty of the UN prohibits countries from doing this while no such prohibition on individuals and companies exists—but the idea remains exciting. The Moon is rich in helium-3, used in fusion cycles—imagine what this could mean for our energy security. But since such expeditions would need massive investment, the US seems to have the right idea in testing the waters for private sector involvement. Meanwhile, 13 of out of the 37 private space flight programmes hitherto announced (including collaborations) involve US-based companies and Planetary Resources, a US-based firm, is looking at mining asteroids. The new space race is about opening up the cosmos for the private sector and the US, so far, is winning it.