Thanks to the success of recent rocket launches and private sector innovations, Space investment is launching full speed ahead and has never been hotter. This comes a little over a half a century after the first space race saw governments vying for dominance as they exlusively controlled the access to space and its utilization.
But that’s changing at an increasing rate. Today’s space economy is looking drastically different, as we see a more complex stream of players and activity due to various factors, namely declining launch costs, the miniaturization of space hardware, increased private funding, and an ever-growing interest in space exploration. According to economists from the US Chamber of Commerce, the space economy is set to reach $1.05 trillion by the early 2040s.
Our thirst for exploration has since brought whole nations together to create more advanced technologies at the International Space Station and more ─ all to discover the answer to the question, “What lies beyond?”. Reaching the next milestone in interplanetary travel requires collaboration and commitment from leaders that spans political affiliations and administrations. With a new space race getting underway — one which could prove vital — it’s up to us to focus on innovation and advancements that maximize our chances of success to reach the final frontier.
The 2020s: A New Space Odyssey
Space is arguably the most promising industry to arise since the inception of the tech sector. Growth is projected to skyrocket in the coming years, led by tradtional companies like Northrop Grumman and Boeing, along with newer entrants including Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and Blue Origin. The skyrocketing investments are thanks to fewer barriers within the space industry, which had previously been reserved for governments and the ultra-wealthy. Now, private sector companies are assisting in this burgeoning industry. Goldman Sachs estimates that since 2000, $13.3 billion has been invested into new space startups alone.
Today, we’re experiencing new heights with new products and services. In fact, the products and services sector makes up 55 percent of the current space economy, with infrastructure (25%) and government (20%), making up a smaller portion of the market. In the 2020s, the list of innovations shaping the space economy and even life on Earth are astonishing and investments include:
- Mega and Mini Constellations
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is currently launching the Starlink mega constellation, where they’ll begin offering broadband internet access to customers on Earth. SpaceX isn’t the only company making this bet: Telesat, OneWeb and Amazon are also investing billions in thousands of internet-connected satellite networks. It’s possible because satellites and launch rockets are now significantly cheaper, thanks to Musk’s efforts to drive down launch costs. Much of the revenue made in space is due to satellite-provided services, so these efforts will improve the space economy. The increase in satellites will bring challenges and benefits, as experts worry about space debris and traffic. But this will likely spur investment in new satellite service companies that seek to clean low-Earth orbit.
Venture capitalists have also spent millions on small satellite companies with big goals. Companies like Planet, Hawkeye360, Spire and Capella Space are just a handful of firms that have raised funds, launched satellites, and are developing innovations for 2020 and beyond. Their business models are diverse, ranging from tracking radio signals to imaging Earth. However, they depend on the affordable cost of building and operating spacecraft to succeed. Today, we see an increasing number of companies operating small satellites, and a growing number of firms creating rockets for the task. Rocket Lab has been the most successful, while Virgin Orbit begins operations in 2020, and Relativity Space remains on target for a maiden launch in 2021.
- Advances in Human Spaceflight
Boeing and SpaceX are in the final stretch to develop a private space
transportation service with orbital flights of their vehicles. Sometime in 2021, we can expect regular service to the International Space Station. Other officials expect this progress to increase the amount of research conducted on the station, a big plus for the space economy. This transportation promises more revenue and new opportunities for private-sector collaboration in low-Earth orbit.
- NASA’s Public-Private Partnerships
Space visionaries indicate that returning to the Moon—and access to the water ice discovered there—are crucial to the grand visions of a future space economy, where thousands of people live and work in Earth orbit. Currently, it’s not clear whether we can create a sustainable presence on the Moon, but NASA is investing in smaller, meaningful efforts to boost the space economy. It is contracting private companies to develop spacecraft, landers, and rovers that will hold scientific instruments on its way to the Moon. Other partnerships will help fly cargo and crew to the ISS, which will deliver more scientific bang for funding and taxpayer dollars. From an economic viewpoint, the program will likely improve private companies’ experience and capability when it comes to operating on the Moon.
A New Global Space Economy
While we can’t fully grasp what our economy will look like in 20 years, the private sector space industry will inevitably transform how societies across the globe live, communicate and do business. It already has.
Nearly every company on Earth depends on technologies initially designed for space in their day-to-day operations. These technologies range from satellite communications, remote sensing, and location-based services. Businesses across various sectors are leveraging these and other technologies to stake their claim in the new economic space frontier.
Even pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Sanofi are undertaking experiments aboard the International Space Station to assess the potential advantages of microgravity in developing new drugs and treatments to help people live longer and healthier lives. Other companies, such as Axiom Space, are committed to making off-Earth habitation a reality. Retailers are also getting involved in the action. Target is funding research on the International Space Station to produce more sustainable forms of cotton.
This participation helps to secure commercial progress in a fast-growing industry. It also would be a catalyst for innovation and scientific discovery, with salutary effects that would benefit the entire economy.
One might consider the groundbreaking innovations that resulted from the Apollo program — from CAT scans and computer microchips to miniature cameras and cordless tools. Numerous inventions were developed in NASA research labs to expand human productivity in microgravity, beginning in the earliest era of Project Mercury and in experiments aboard today’s ISS.
It will still take an effort to achieve a return to the Moon and even more innovation to reach Mars and other deep space missions. Yet, more than 50 years ago, we went to the Moon despite its difficulties. And the space economy’s progress will usher in a new era of global innovation.
In reality, the new space race is and should remain a healthy economic competition. The true medal of honor is to innovate continuously so we can make space exploration and scientific discovery more efficient and accessible to all.