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SES’ Acquisition of Intelsat Marks a New Chapter in the History of the Space Age

By Roger Cochetti | June 4, 2024

Photo: ESA/NASA

The recent announcement that Luxemburg-based satellite operator SES acquired Intelsat, the former inter-governmental satellite organization, represents the final paragraph of what I describe as the third chapter of the Space Age. The next Space Age chapter has begun and it will change many rules. To make sense of this emerging Space Age environment, we need to take a brief look at the Space Age itself and how it’s gotten us to the next chapter, what I’ll call “Chapter IV: In Space, Everything’s Up for Grabs.”

Historians have various ways to demark the Space Age. I prefer four chapters beginning in the 1930’s with “Chapter I: Space as a Major Weapon” when German scientists pioneered the development of rocketry as a major weapon system. Through the V-2 Rocket, the world saw major weapons coming down from Space potentially destroying entire cities. The emerging US and Soviet superpowers watched carefully; and German rockets and rocket scientists were soon the two superpowers’ most sought-after commodities when the War ended. This led to the development of larger and more powerful Soviet and American rockets during the postwar years and their being equipped with nuclear weapons or spy cameras. During Chapter I (1930’s-1950’s), the Space Age began as a military event.

By the early-1960’s, military Space technologies allowed other important uses for the Space environment, such as satellites for telecommunications, photos from Space for weather forecasting, basic Earth science and planetary exploration probes. During the 1960’s-1970’s, the military character of Space merged with these new Space interests to lead to “Chapter II: US/Soviet Military-Scientific-Commercial Space Rivalry” -often called “The Space Race.” This period is probably most remembered by the Soviet’s groundbreaking Sputnik satellite and first man in Space, Yuri Gagarin; Kennedy/Johnson’s Appollo (man-on-the-moon) project, the emergence of weather satellites/space probes and the use of satellites for long-haul public telephone, telex, television and eventually data transmission. Intelsat, also proposed in Kennedy’s 1961 “send a man-to-the-moon” speech, was arguably America’s principal Cold War, non-military satellite initiative. It eventually grew to include all US allies and over 100 countries but was privatized during the 1990’s.

The end of the Cold War in the early 1990’s combined with Reagan-era moves to privatize government programs and the evolution of computer and other technologies then led to the end of Chapter II and the beginning of “Chapter III: The Commercialization of Non-confrontational Space.” As the US-Soviet military rivalries ended, major changes occurred during the 1990’s and 2000’s that re-wrote the rules for the Space Age. The growth of China into the world’s second largest economy combined with significant changes in the technologies -and thus the economics- of Space led to the introduction of China, the European Union, Japan and India as major military/scientific/commercial Space players with Russia continuing the Soviet role as a principal Space player…and over a dozen other countries conducting notable independent Space programs.

Also, during the 1990’s and 2000’s, worldwide privatizations combined with the rapid miniaturization of everything electronic and new rocket technologies to dramatically reduce the cost of placing anything into Space. By the 2010’s, these changes created opportunities for non-military business (think SpaceX, Blue Origin, Starlink, Kuiper Systems and many more) to develop entirely new Space businesses such as satellite television/Internet with tiny home antenna, Space tourism, Space mining, Space manufacturing, etc.

In the background, for example, is the fact that from the 1960’s through the 2000’s, the cost of building and deploying a large orbiting satellite was typically over $100 million each. By the 2010’s, it was common to build and deploy a small satellite for $10 million or less. A key part of this economic shift was a change from bus-sized, geostationary orbiting (GEO) satellites to the suitcase-sized, low-Earth orbiting (LEO) satellites that began to dominate the Space industry during the 2010’s. This change lowered costs by making it possible to pack many small satellites onto a single rocket; thus making it possible for hundreds of businesses and dozens of countries to afford Space ventures and programs.

It was therefore less difficult for China to emerge as a Space superpower and make it likely that China will be the second country to place a human on the moon and, in partnership with Russia, the first to establish a permanent moon base (notwithstanding a longstanding US ban on Space cooperation with China.) Nor was it as difficult as in past decades for China to establish a large manned space station that may well outlive the International Space Station…or for China to beat the United States in returning humans to the moon.

Another fundamental change in the Space environment during the 2010’s was the re-emergence of Space as a principal theater of war. The military importance of nuclear weaponized ICBM’s and SLBM’s has been a leading part of the Space Age since the 1950’s. But the growing use of such Space technologies as GPS for everything from position-fixing to timing to targeting, and LEO satellites for battlefield spying or communications, means that control over the Space domain has enormous military benefits. This has led to the widespread creation of Space-centric military forces, such as America’s Space Force. This new militarization of Space remains an important background element as Chapter III of the Space Age now comes to an end.

Welcome today to Chapter IV of the Space Age: Everything’s Up for Grabs.

As US Space dominance is replaced by Space multipolarity, GEO replaced by LEO satellites, a small number of large defense contractors replaced by hundreds of globally-diverse Space ventures and major power cooperation replaced by geopolitical confrontation, virtually everything in this new chapter of the Space Age is up for grabs. Business acumen, will often replace scientific research. International dealmaking will often replace national pride. Technological development (and sometimes pure luck) will often replace industrial strength. It’s not at all clear where this will lead us, but this new chapter of the Space Age will bring many surprises.


 

Roger Cochetti is Principal at RJC Associates, an Author, and an award-winning consultant with broad experience in global Internet, commercial space and telecommunications fields. He has been an executive in the technology sector for over thirty years, including COMSAT Mobile Communications, IBM, VeriSign and other technology businesses.