Earlier this week, an American rocket flew into space then returned safely to Earth. That shouldn't be a big surprise. Space shuttles did that for 30 years between 1981 and 2011. What's different is that this was a private-enterprise venture, founded by Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos.
Blue Origin is a project to develop a rocket and crew capsule which will eventually launch space tourists on sub-orbital space missions. After a conventional launch, the capsule and rocket separate. The capsule lands on solid ground with the aid of parachutes, but the rocket lands on the power of its own main rocket engine, touching down on four landing struts.
Getting rockets to land safely back on Earth is seen as a vital step to making spaceflight more affordable. Throwing out a vehicle after just one journey would make other forms of transport prohibitively expensive. The Space Shuttle was largely re-usable, but the heavy maintenance it required meant that it was really no cheaper than conventional 'expendable' rockets.
The successful landing of the Blue Origin rocket after an actual space mission sparked an angry 'tweet war' with Elon Musk, the South African-born entrepreneur behind Tesla electric cars and SpaceX, a US company that also makes rockets and space capsules. Musk has been trying to get one of his Falcon 9 rockets home safely for years, but has never staged a safe landing. Rivalries for this first landing shadow greater contests in the cutthroat business of commercial spaceflight, which struggles to attract clients to offset its huge operational costs.
That's a commercial problem and a dilemma in international affairs and trade. Spaceflight is making a transition from government-sponsored launches to private enterprise flights. Already, commercial missions outstrip government ones. But commercial companies still depend heavily on government launch contracts (including SpaceX) and government-related launch providers have also dabbled in commercialism. Australia had its first two Aussat satellites launched by the US Space Shuttle. The price Australia paid for the launch did not reflect the true cost of flying the mission. Similarly, Japan has just launched a Canadian satellite on its government-sponsored H-2A rocket, the first commercial launch for this vehicle. China has also used its program to glean foreign currency for satellite launches at rates that some analysts feel are subsidised.
Nations accuse each other of unfair trade practices regularly. Space is no exception. As the space industry expands, and the world becomes even more interlinked through free trade treaties, the stage is set for further confrontations. Oh, national security is sometimes a good excuse to engage in protectionism!