With the splash down earlier this month of the Dragon capsule from SpaceX corporation, we herald in a new era of private competition in the space race. SpaceX, a startup funded by Paypal billionaire Elon Musk managed to do what only three countries have done before; send a vehicle to the International Space Station. The mission was to resupply it, but within a year or so, they hope to be sending astronauts rather than just payloads. I felt a brief moment of hopefulness in our nation’s potential. Perhaps we could once again be the leader in this human condition changing field, using the power of private enterprise and entrepreneurship. During the launch, which I had the privilege of being present at, they had dual live video feeds of the both controls rooms, NASA and SpaceX. The NASA Mission control in Cape Canaveral was in a supporting role for a change and the SpaceX control room was in California. It was interesting to note the stark difference between the two. The NASA control room looked as it has for the last several decades; huge custom-built consoles with white shirted engineers, albeit fewer than past launches. The SpaceX control room had young engineers in casual clothes, the modern engineer uniform of black T-shirt and jeans, working away at laptops on what looked like folding tables. It could have been any startup in Silicon Valley, save for the fact that these nerds were piloting their inventions to SPACE! I saw visions of a dotcom-like space race, with tons of VC money being funneled into wildly speculative space ventures. Some of these will succeed spectacularly and some of which fail spectacularly. Perhaps the next space race would be between companies rather than countries. And just like the Internet’s explosion after private industry entered it in the 90s, maybe this was a better way to do it.
Amongst all this success, I wondered who else might be interested in the fruits of these companies labors. Remember the original technology battles, those between the former USSR and the USA? First for the atomic bomb and then for space travel, both with military implications. The resources that each nation brought to pursuing and protecting these resources were massive. Entire agencies with thousands of people in them; CIA, NSA, FBI and more. While the Russians and Chinese no longer need our technology, other countries certainly might be interested. How about North Korea? After their multiple failed attempts at getting rockets to fly straight and not blow up, they might be willing to pay a pretty penny for the plans for a working spaceship. And Iran wouldn’t mind having its own space fleet either. Though don’t count on these nations to revel in the high mindedness of the endeavor. They are probably more interested in the martial uses of space travel, namely that of being able to send weapon payloads around the world.
These nations don’t have agencies as fearsome as the former KGB; however, they do have plenty of money and have shown in the past they are willing to spend it on such extravagances while their people starve. Certainly they can bring more of an assault than most normal startup companies expect. These attacks may be frontal, trying to hack in the front door, or may come in the more subversive and much harder to protect against form of subverting insiders to provide information. SpaceX and other companies that will come after have conquered the final frontier. But are they ready to defend this ground against well funded and very motivated attackers seeking to steal their intellectual property and use it for ill gotten gain or worse? That is the question that I hope Elon and his competitors are ready to answer.