Insight | Space explained: What is the second Space Age (and why are billionaires involved)?


Space explained: What is the second Space Age (and why are billionaires involved)?


The first of Inmarsat’s ‘What on Earth is the Value of Space?’ reports found a lack of understanding and excitement about space among the general public. The results were a wake-up call for our industry. That is why we have created a new ‘space explained’ series to engage more people on the immense challenges, magnificent possibilities and potential risks of space exploration.

Space exploration has captured public attention for more than 80 years. Following the Space Race during the second half of the 20th century, space innovation gradually receded from public view. Now, private investment has set off a second Space Age, which is raising the stakes like never before. Mark Dickinson, Inmarsat Deputy CTO and VP, Space Segment explains why.

The first Space Age: a clash of ideologies

The first Space Age began in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first ever human-made satellite. The United States established NASA a year later. Competing ideologies between the two superpowers turned the space race into an extra-terrestrial theatre of the Cold War.

The next decade was marked by extraordinary innovation, dedication and ambition. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the Moon in 1969. Space and its endless possibilities became deeply woven into the public consciousness – with each new mission, failure and success splashed across the front pages and transmitted live on television. NASA’s Moon landing was watched by more than 500 million people. It became one of the defining moments of the century: perhaps the first simultaneously shared global experience in human history.

With the race to the Moon won, political appetite and investment in space research fell in both the US and the Soviet Union over the following decade. Scientists in both countries had to make do with diminishing budgets and a resultant period of technological stagnation, particularly in terms of crewed space exploration.

NASA’s next big innovation was the Space Shuttle programme, launched in 1981. This involved re-usable shuttle launches which were intended to enable cheaper crewed space missions. The project experienced tragedy with the loss of Challenger in 1986, which killed all seven crew members, and of Columbia in 2003, again with the loss of the seven people on board. These events were watched by millions and had profound ramifications. Funding for space-related programmes fell sharply.  The first Space Age was over.

The second Space Age: privatisation and investment

In April 1990, a rocket named ‘Pegasus’ was air-launched by Orbital Sciences Corporation. A few minutes later, it became the very first vehicle developed fully by a private company to reach orbit. This laid initial foundations for a new Space Age – this time driven more by businesses than governments.

Companies like Inmarsat began to launch new satellite communications services to provide global connectivity services. Inmarsat began as an organisation to provide emergency communications to mariners in distress but developed to provide additional connectivity – calls, data, internet and more alongside continuing its founding mission of safety– over time as technology developed.

Other countries and international agencies joined the sector as well, such as those in Europe, China, India and Brazil. New space-based connectivity solutions revolutionised how we communicated, moved and shared information across land, sea and air. The benefits of space became fundamentally woven into the fabric of everyday life. Today entire industries like aviation, broadcasting, defence, retail, agriculture and logistics could not function without space and satellite technology. Even cash machines use satellite services.

With such extraordinary potential, private investment in space has grown exponentially in recent years. Tech companies like SpaceX, Amazon and Virgin Orbit have also entered the industry with ambitious plans to reduce costs, revolutionise technology or enable space tourism. The sector is currently attracting record amounts of private investment and is set to continue growing at an impressive rate.

Why are billionaires involved?

Recently, billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have made international headlines with privately funded trips to sub-orbital space (which is between 50-100 miles above the Earth), while Elon Musk has stated his aim of enabling a human colony on Mars.

There are many reasons why billionaire entrepreneurs are getting involved in the sector. One is the extraordinary potential for social, technological and economic benefits from space-based innovation. This includes new possibilities like finding new energy sources, researching new medicines, providing global connectivity solutions, or monitoring and acting upon climate change. Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, for example, has suggested he aims to move heavy industry and energy production off Earth and provide space broadband services as part of Amazon’s Project Kuiper.

Some billionaires are also interested in researching and promoting space tourism, which Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic plans to provide for up to £250,000 per seat in the future. Orbital tourism flights are likely to increase in the next few years, including plans from Elon Musk to take an 82-year-old American millionaire and 11 others on a ‘moonshot’ to within 200km of the lunar surface. Tickets for the ride could cost tens of millions of pounds each. 

Congested, competitive and contested

While we all now benefit from space, the huge increase in investment and attention has brought its own challenges. Companies and governments alike are competing over technology, products and infrastructure to vie for competitive advantage.

Some operators across the world are engaging in what could be called ‘sharp practices’, where satellite operators aim to create monopolies; or where certain governments carry out intrusive and dangerous activities with impunity and disregard for safety considerations. While usually not technically illegal under national or international law, these behaviours take place just below the line of acceptable and responsible behaviour. They can be detrimental to the global community and stifle genuine research and innovation.

We also believe that the second Space Age raises deep sustainability concerns. 

Only eight years ago there were approximately 1,400 satellites in the atmospheric region known as low Earth orbit (LEO) between 100 and 2,000 kilometres above the planet. Today that number is more than 4,000 and keeps rising. By the end of this decade, we are likely to see tens of thousands of operational satellites in LEO, along with thousands of other human-made objects like spent launch boosters, other rocket parts and satellites that are no longer operational. 

This unprecedented expansion drastically increases the likelihood of collisions and potential disasters. Many satellites will also break up in the Earth’s atmosphere, depositing large quantities of aluminium particles in a vast uncontrolled experiment on our climate.  As on Earth, we must treat space sustainably and protect the extra-terrestrial environment for future generations, which is why Inmarsat has published a list of recommendations to meet this challenge through international cooperation in our recent Space Sustainability Report.

This article covers the second Space Age, which has seen a new era of private and investment and innovation in space. While it creates exciting new opportunities, we believe there is serious concerns about global cooperation and sustainability. Our next article will answer ‘How much space junk is there?’

About the author


Mark Dickinson is Inmarsat’s Deputy CTO & VP Space Segment.

Mark obtained a PhD in High Energy Astrophysics from the University of Durham, before joining Inmarsat in 2000. Between 2009 and 2017 Mark was the Head of Satellite Operations, responsible for Inmarsat’s fleet of geostationary telecommunications satellites. Since 2018 he is responsible for the design, procurement and launch of Inmarsat’s future space segment assets.

From March 2017 to September 2019, Mark was appointed as the Chairman of the Space Data Association (SDA), an international not-for-profit organisation, that brings together commercial, civil and government satellite operators to support the controlled, reliable and efficient sharing of data critical to the safety and integrity of the space environment. Mark remains Inmarsat’s SDA Executive Director.