The Newspace paradigm : SpaceX is just the beginning

di Juline Lefevre Lancelot - 15 Luglio 2020

from Lille, France

   DOI: 10.48256/TDM2012_00117

In 2009, the SpaceX CEO Elon Musk revealed his intentions to « create a paradigm shift in the traditional approach to rocket reuse » (Bergin, 2014). By saying that, he exposed his great will to change one of the space industry paradigms. Indeed, SpaceX, also known as « Space Exploration Technologies Corporation » is a private space company, which aims to reduce space transportation costs. 

The resolution of this company is on the path of the « NewSpace » movement, which has been accelerated since the 2000s by SpaceX. By definition, « Newspace » is a movement or a philosophy linked to the emergence of the private space industry, without being its consequence. (Pasco, 2017). It gathers the new aerospace companies working to develop public access to space exploration, and SpaceX is currently the leader of the movement (Sheetz, 2020). 

By wanting to make a shift in the space industry, the private company may seem to lack legitimacy in space activity. As states have always been the most legitimate actors, the growing importance of private companies such as SpaceX seems to undermine their sovereignty 


The conquest of space in IR : a history of states 

Space exploration plays a major role in International Relations. After WWII, the space conquest was contended between the two strongest countries : the USA and the USSR. Not only because they could afford it, but also because they wanted to strengthen their strategic position against each other (Sourbès-Verger,2010). Therefore, space exploration was driven by a soft-power logic, as it valued multilateralism. It was a means to develop one nation’s military powers and in the end, become the most influential country in international relations. 

In addition, between 1976 and 1990, new states entered space competition, such as France and China. As a matter of fact, at that time, the mastery of space technologies was considered as inherent of strong sovereignty (Barbaroux, dos Santos, 2013). Thus, space activity is a powerful anchor in state identities. Consequently, space was seen as a political instrument to influence other states. It is still the case today : space is a political demonstration for nation-states inside international relations. (Floch, 2019)

On the contrary, from 1990, space exploration is marked by a military disengagement with a growing number of civil launches, especially commercial ones (Barbaroux, dos Santos, 2013). Consequently, can we wonder whether this gradual disengagement of the State in the conquest of space leads to the emergence of a new world order? 


The emergence of private industry in space exploration

From the 1980s, in parallel to the decrease of military and governmental launches, space exploration is undertaken by the private industry. Private companies begin to make serious efforts in space exploration in order to be independent of governmental agencies. This was allowed by the decision of the U.S. commercial space policy enabling its legislation. More specifically thanks to the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, which represents « a historic shift in U.S. policy » (Abell, 2016). The Act recognized that private companies had the capability to launch vehicles and satellites. 

This landmark signs the beginning of the Newspace paradigm, bringing new hopes for the development of space industries by other actors than states. Strengthened by the fall of the USSR and consequently by the end of a world driven by a bipolar rivalry, a large number of companies began to enter space activity (Anderman, 2006).

Today, SpaceX is the most powerful of these companies. This American aerospace manufacturer was founded in 2002 with one goal : to reduce space transportation costs in order to have enough means to colonize Mars (Chang, 2016). Since its creation, SpaceX has clearly established itself as a key actor in the space industry, with the innovations it has made. For instance, it was the first private company to launch and recover a rocket, in 2010 (Petroni and Bigliardi, 2019). More recently, they sent astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), becoming the first to do so(NORTHEAST, 2020).

In the end, this Newspace process led the way to the space-business environment that we know today. With a multiplicity of actors in space activity, the meaning of space exploration seems to have taken a completely opposite path. 


Newspace : a « better » space activity ? 

As Stephen Johnson stated in 2006 : Newspace is the new « faster, better, cheaper » space industry (Johnson, 2006). On the one hand, the private space industry transformed the way of space exploration. Indeed, by making it more affordable, it allows societies to make progress about their space technologies. As a result, the overall trend is towards growth in financing to the private sector, which comes with a cost-cutting logic (Floch, 2019).

On the other hand, we can question the drawbacks of an increase in private companies’ influence. Whereas it was associated with the states, space exploration is now open to a large number of institutions. Entrepreneurs, lawmakers, NGOs, and supranational organizations are now able to take part in space activity, through private companies. Moreover, we can criticize the fact that this creates a for-profit space activity(Barcomb, 2016). Consequently, the more private companies take over space activity, the more progress will be associated with benefits. 

Therefore, the growing influence of private companies such as SpaceX questions the space activity’s hierarchy. Now that SpaceX is collaborating with NASA since 2008, it makes the company one of the most influential actors in space activity. In that way, could it be considered as more powerful than states ? Would it not be dangerous if a private company could make states bend under their influence? 


Concrete influence of private companies on today’s space industry   

Firstly, we need to put nuances in the consequences of the decrease of military launches by states. Indeed, governments will continue to dominate every sector of the space industry. Moreover, private companies do not have the same importance and the same possibility to grow in each country (El Mrabet, 2020). That means that they have the place that the states want them to have. For example, the case of the USA and SpaceX is explicit : the government considers it as an auxiliary for strategic deployment (El Mrabet, 2020). 

Consequently, as Elias El Mrabet stated, the rise of these companies is going to create a « return to classic geopolitical logic ». Indeed, states still control space activity. What is new is that it comes from the cooperation between private companies and public administration (El Mrabet, 2020). Thus, with the development of SpaceX, the U.S.A. will actually expand their geopolitical influence in international relations, and maybe even be the first to colonize Mars, as it is the goal of SpaceX. 

At last, we can assume that a new conquest of space may be looming (El Mrabet, 2020). This one would mobilize several « new economy » private companies, although this would happen only if they would make benefits from it. 

Bibliography (A-E)

Abell, J., “Sept. 9, 1982: 3-2-1 … Liftoff! The First Private Rocket Launch”. Wired. Archived from the original on 9 October 2016.

Anderman, D., “The New Commercial Space Companies”. Archived from the original on 13 August 2006.

Barbaroux, P., dos Santos Paulino, V., 2013. « Le rôle de la Défense dans l’émergence d’une nouvelle industrie : le cas de l’industrie spatiale ». Innovations, (n° 42), p. 39-58. URL :

Barcomb, K., 2016. “Space Sustainment – A New Approach for America in Space” Air University (USAF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 30 November 2016.

Bergin, C., 2014. « SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship ready for action », [online].

Chang, K., 2016. “Elon Musk’s Plan: Get Humans to Mars, and Beyond”. New York Times.

NORTHEAST NOW. 2020. Elon Musk’S Spacex Becomes First Private Company To Launch Astronauts In Space. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 24 June 2020].

El Mrabet, E., 2020. « Newspace » Les Nouveaux Enjeux Stratégiques De La | Regard Critique. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 27 June 2020].

Bibliography (F-Z)

Floch, H., 2019. Les Enjeux Politiques De L’Espace Pour Les États.. [online] Master civilisations, cultures et sociétés. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 June 2020].

Pasco, X., 2017. Le Nouvel Âge Spatial. Paris: CNRS Ed.

Petroni, G. and Bigliardi, B., 2019. The Space Economy. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publisher.

Sheetz, M., 2020. How Elon Musk’s Rocket Company Spacex Beat Boeing To Become A $28 Billion Aerospace Juggernaut. [online] CNBC. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 June 2020].

Sourbès-Verger, I., 2010. « Espace et géopolitique », L’Information géographique, 2010/2 (Vol. 74), p. 10-35. DOI : 10.3917/lig.742.0010. URL :


Autore dell’articolo*: Juline Lefevre-Lancelot. Studentessa di Political Science, Law, Economics and Interntional Relations at Sciences Po Lille. Come sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti. 


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