AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND — For a generation, space was the exclusive playground of the world’s super powers — and for those who wanted to become one. Exactly 50 years ago this week, the United States launched its Apollo 11 lunar landing mission and the Trump administration is seeking to go back to the moon by 2024.
Newcomer India’s aspirations to become the first country to land on the south pole of the moon hit a snag this week, with its second lunar mission aborted hours before launch time because of a technical issue.
While those nations vie to expand space exploration to new frontiers, some smaller countries have eagerly stepped-up to fill gaps in less ambitious — but not less critical — space projects.
New Zealand, Singapore and Luxembourg headline this emerging space race between minnows.
Each country has grown its space industry by adopting policies to lure private sector and government contracts, focusing on research or the production and launch of rockets. The satellites those rockets catapult into space are powering everything from intelligence gathering to the supervision of construction or agricultural projects.
While their approaches differ greatly, all of them benefit from being small and nimble: Instead of red tape, they can offer quick solutions to legal challenges that would otherwise delay projects — while also providing funding for research or tax incentives.
Tiny Luxembourg, which is less populous than Washington, created a $110 million fund last fall to attract space technology start-ups. While it does not launch its own satellites, Luxembourg in 2017 became the second nation worldwide, after the United States, guaranteeing the rights of private companies to resources they extract in space. The move was meant to attract companies seeking to one day mine asteroids, for instance. Dozens of enterprises struck agreements to set up bases in the country after the legislation was passed. Overall, about 50 space research labs and companies are now based in Luxembourg.
Singapore’s satellite manufacturing industry has grown from being virtually nonexistent to now boasting some 1,000 employees working for suppliers and research facilities.
But each faces one fundamental challenge: location. They are situated in central parts of Europe and Asia that are already heavily trafficked and wouldn’t support the needs of high-frequency rocket launch sites.
That’s where New Zealand has found its niche.
“In order to launch a rocket you have to close down thousands of kilometers of airspace,” said Peter Beck, the CEO of U.S. company Rocket Lab, which built New Zealand’s first launch site in a remote part of the country’s North Island.
As the aviation industry has grown more protective of North America’s and Europe’s crowded skies in recent years, more rocket launch companies are exploring alternatives farther away. Those alternatives also need to be located in stable countries “with a stable government,” Beck said earlier this year.
“Basically, you end up with a small island nation in the middle of nowhere,” he said against the backdrop of two giant U.S. and New Zealand flags in his Auckland production facility. “It’s New Zealand."
The U.S.-based company was originally founded in New Zealand and it has recently expanded its operations there with a larger rocket factory.
From its remote Mahia launch site, the company shoots small satellites into space for a fraction of what similar missions would have cost a decade ago. The far cheaper satellites are the size of a small box and no longer need a gigantic infrastructure to be produced and launched.
Producing and launching conventional, heavy satellites can cost more than $400 million, according to U.S. Air Force budget estimates for national security-relevant payloads, but smaller alternatives can now be sent to space for less than 1 percent of that.
Rocket Lab’s clients include private foreign corporations, but New Zealand’s status as a member of the coveted Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance with the United States has also attracted U.S. government agencies, which would normally opt for U.S. launch sites.
Now, an increasing number of them — including NASA and the Defense Department — are choosing to launch their satellites from New Zealand, which is raising hopes here that the country’s nascent space industry is heading toward a bright future.
Luxembourg has similarly benefited from being an innovation-friendly member of another exclusive club: the European Union. As an E.U. member, the country has access to lucrative grants and projects.
While officials in New Zealand, Luxembourg and Singapore are hopeful that their performance in the space industry will attract global corporate giants, some have urged caution about overly optimistic expectations — warning that the increasingly crowded field of private space companies may be heading toward a retraction as many underestimate the challenges to building a profitable space business.
Still, even as a number of competitors may eventually be forced out of the market, demand for the companies that succeed is expected to rise significantly, experts say.
"There will be an increased demand globally for small satellite launches as space becomes more democratized,” said Alexandra Stickings, a space policy research fellow with the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
In New Zealand, the rocket race has triggered an unprecedented interest in space science.
Christopher Eric Hann, who created a rocketry course for New Zealand’s University of Canterbury in 2014, said he had seen a “major increase in students wishing to get into aerospace or rocketry-related postgraduate study."
Most of his graduates, he said, move onto careers at Rocket Lab in New Zealand. Others have moved on to larger American-based aerospace firms — only to make it back home where Hann said many of them preferred working for a smaller company with local roots, rather than for competitors that offered “very little opportunity to contribute to new innovation.”