Astronaut Sen. Kelly touts ‘stunning’ space business growth, calls for more rocket competition

Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly speaks at the annual Commercial Space Transportation conference on Feb. 9, 2023.
Michael Sheetz | CNBC

Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, who flew to space four times over a 15-year career as an astronaut, praised the growth of the space industry and gave a rallying cry for intensified competition.

“Some of the advancements are truly stunning; this has been a great success,” Kelly said, speaking at a luncheon during the Commercial Space Transportation conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

Kelly noted that the cost of sending satellites, people and cargo to orbit is currently “a fraction” of what it was when he flew on NASA’s space shuttle. He added that — while the industry’s growth is encouraging — companies building rockets need “to step up to the plate” and bring more “new launch vehicles to market faster and embrace renewed competition, not stifle it.”

“We need more launch vehicles to continue to reduce the costs associated with getting a payload to orbit,” Kelly said.

A Falcon Heavy rocket launches the USSF-67 mission on January 15, 2023 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Rockets are launching at an unprecedented pace, with 2022 setting a new annual record of 87 from the U.S. Most of those were by Elon Musk‘s SpaceX, which is currently launching every four days on average, but a variety of other companies are aiming to ramp up the pace and are debuting new rockets in the coming years — including Rocket Lab, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, Astra, Virgin Orbit, Northrop Grumman, Firefly and ABL.

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Kelly admitted that, “like maybe a lot of folks at NASA and a lot of folks in Washington” at the turn of the century, he was skeptical about relying on private companies for launches.

“I always like to think I’m the first person to admit when I was wrong, and I was about this,” Kelly said.

“The commercial space sector is critical. It’s critical to the future of the U.S. economy, and it’s critical to our leadership abroad. Without the commercial space sector, we wouldn’t be able to get our national security assets into orbit. Without it, entire sectors of the American economy, from telecom to global shipping and navigation, would not be globally competitive,” Kelly added.

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