For decades, relatively easy access to space and the big profits to go with it have dangled elusively just over the horizon. With a little more R&D money and a few more advances in the technology, the thinking went, space would be ours.
Are we there yet? More than a few signs are pointing in the direction of a robust, varied space age of viable commercialization — as well as more audacious goals than we’ve seen in generations.
On the practical side, advances in reusable rockets, lowered per-launch costs and miniaturization of satellites are opening up business opportunities well beyond aerospace and defense, and into IT hardware and telecom, according to Morgan Stanley. The global space industry is expected to generate revenue of $1.1 trillion or more in 2040, up from the current $350 billion, according to a recent report by the firm.
On the dream side, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recently outlined a long-term vision for putting a trillion people in space colonies with one small step coming soon: an infrastructure starting with lunar lander Blue Moon. “We are going to build a road to space,” Bezos said at a May unveiling of his plans, “and then amazing things will happen.”
Amazing things already are. One indication that big business is taking space more seriously is that interest has moved from the fringe to the mainstream, says Wharton management professor Anoop Menon. While space retains an undeniably speculative aspect, especially around development of business models, a number of factors are coming together now to suggest that big business’s foray into space is here.
“I don’t think we are necessarily a long way away — it’s a matter of being creative,” said Menon, co-author with Laura Huang and Tiona Zuzul of “Watershed Moments, Cognitive Discontinuities, and Entrepreneurial Entry: The Case of New Space.” Satellites that capture geospatial data are potentially quite lucrative, he says, tracking shipping movements, deforestation or the location of mining deposits. “This is an interesting one,” says Menon of another idea: “Taking pictures of parking lots at Wal-Mart and Target and selling that to hedge funds, since traffic is a pretty good leading indicator of economic activity.”
A sustainable business model for many is clearly the goal. For others, though, sustaining losses is a small price to pay for the pursuit of something larger and potentially more meaningful. Bezos, for instance, has said he is willing to sell a billion dollars of Amazon stock per year in exchange for adventure and knowledge in space.
Says Nicolaj Siggelkow, Wharton management professor and co-director of the Mack Institute for Innovation Management: “The main driver for these people I think is much more an aspirational goal. Here we are clinging to this speck of dust moving through the universe and there is this idea that we might be able to escape that. That is ultimately what drives their wanting to succeed.”
Space: Province of Billionaires
Three individualistic billionaires — Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson — have increasingly turned their attention in the last two decades to space, which is defined by NASA and other Earthlings as beginning at 50 miles above sea level. Last month, Musk’s SpaceX launched a rocket that released 60 500-pound satellites into orbit. SpaceX intends to launch others, creating Starlink, a web of satellites supporting a global internet service.
“This ‘data-driven’ aspect when coupled with the rest of the space-industry ecosystem could make it more robust.”–Anoop Menon
Thousands more satellites are being readied. Telesat LEO (low-earth orbit) will launch a “constellation of highly advanced satellites [to] seamlessly integrate with terrestrial networks,” trumpets the company’s promotional literature. “The global network will deliver fiber quality throughput anywhere on earth.”
A partnership of OneWeb Satellites and Airbus will begin launching 900 satellites into low orbit in 2019 to deliver affordable global internet access. Amazon’s Project Kuiper will place 3,236 satellites into orbit with the stated intention of providing “low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world,” Amazon said in a statement to GeekWire.
“Data is everything these days,” says Menon. “There are data companies whose business models are about processing the data that comes out of the satellites, and there is this whole set of companies coming up around this idea,” which is one reason he believes that the new space race is here to stay. “This ‘data-driven’ aspect when coupled with the rest of the space-industry ecosystem could make it more robust.”
Back on Earth, demand for data only promises to increase with the proliferation of AI, development of self-driving vehicles, virtual reality and video.
At the same time, costs for commercial applications are dropping for just about everything — hardware components, software development — enabled by using commercial technology and standard architectures, says Ellen Chang, co-founder of LightSpeed Innovations. “When costs have dropped by about 60% to 80% in whatever industry, I would say you have an opportunity. It started with the inception of the CubeSat, when different commercial off-the-shelf components were used instead of space-qualified components. Over time, more and more engineers adopted the form factor.”
“Here we are clinging to this speck of dust moving through the universe and there is this idea that we might be able to escape that. That is ultimately what drives their wanting to succeed.”–Nicolaj Siggelkow
Recently, the cost of launching a satellite has declined to about $60 million from $200 million because of reusable rockets, reports Morgan Stanley, with a potential drop to as low as $5 million. Satellite mass production could decrease the cost from $500 million per satellite to $500,000.
But more data and better internet service are just the beginning. Companies like Bigelow Aerospace are developing orbital space stations. Axiom Space has staked out plans to build the first international commercial space station — with a Philippe Starck-designed interior — that aims to be a “microgravity laboratory where educators, scientists and researchers conduct life-improving research.”
Other firms are chasing space tourism or mining asteroids for rare minerals. Morgan Stanley notes that privately held space exploration firms are pursuing goals like landing humans on the moon, as well as airplane-borne rocket launchers that could put small telecommunications satellites into low Earth orbit at a far lower cost, and with far greater responsiveness, than ground-based systems.
“It used to be a space race between countries, and now it’s a space race between billionaires,” says Menon. “Musk is running SpaceX with the goal of colonizing Mars and making humanity a multi-planetary species. Bezos, with all of the might of Amazon behind him, is doing it with Blue Origin. He sees it very differently, a space-based civilization rather than colonizing planets, building space stations, and moving heavy industry off-planet, and he is slowly building the pieces for it.”
“These far-out ideas — ‘let’s mine water on the moon, let’s build these big colonies out there’ — that to me I find fascinating and inspirational and aspirational,” says Siggelkow. “And I think that is what allows these firms to attract really good people. It is really cool to be working on something amazing, it’s how you attract great talent. Whether these big projects will become commercially attractive and at what point is another question, but that might be secondary to most people working on these projects.”
“It used to be a space race between countries, and now it’s a space race between billionaires.”–Anoop Menon
There are other reasons for pushing ahead with ideas that may seem pie-in-the-sky, says Wharton management professor David Hsu. “It’s like Google funding big science projects and trying to push the technology frontier,” he says. “That has a signaling purpose in the marketplace — ‘we may be making 99% of our money from your searches, but we are thinking about the future and pushing the frontier a bit.’ They are really trying to work on the harder problems, and maybe we haven’t thought of all of the uses for a particular technology in all cases. They are on the road toward that. You want to be able to show technological things that people didn’t necessarily understand were feasible or possible.”
A certain amount of momentum for ideas hinges on perception, especially regarding a future for the space-tourism industry, Siggelkow notes. “We know this is a really complicated and to a certain extent dangerous endeavor, and the general public’s risk appetite is very low. Think about self-driving vehicles and accidents. At what point do we feel they are safe? There is something similar here. If something happens, I am afraid it will slow down space tourism quite a bit.”
Branson’s Virgin Galactic has already suffered a visible tragedy. One pilot was killed and another injured in 2014 when experimental spaceflight vehicle VSS Enterprise broke up during a test flight and crashed in the Mojave Desert. Several other initiatives have failed, such as Israel’s Beresheet Spacecraft, which in April crashed into the moon.
For now, investors are taking a relatively rosy view of the prospect of making money in space. In the first quarter of 2019, $1.7 billion in equity was invested into space companies — nearly the double the amount invested in the last quarter of 2018, according to Space Investment Quarterly, published by Space Angels. Total funding since 2009 exceeds $20 billion invested in 435 companies, the space-centric financial services firm says.
“With SpaceX, Boeing, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin all inching closer to making history as the first privately funded companies to launch commercial passengers into space, we believe that 2019 will most certainly be the Year of Commercial Space Travel,” the report said.
In terms of the march of progress, mindset matters. In their research paper, Menon and his co-authors proposed that the New Space market was catalyzed by a set of “emotionally resonant” events. These moments — events like the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, or when SpaceShipOne in 2004 became the first privately developed spacecraft to take a pilot into space twice within a two-week period — challenged or reinforced existing notions, and led to new solutions.
“This, in turn, drove the emergence of a previously unimaginable market in aerospace,” they wrote.
“It’s really relevant with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 to remember that it’s not easy to throw some resources at a problem and expect that it’s a given you will have success.”–David Hsu
Menon says what while momentum lagged in recent years, the pace has now picked up — at NASA as well as in other countries. “The European Space Agency was in crisis mode because of the launch cost savings Musk achieved and the market share he was able to carve out so rapidly. In England, there is Reaction Engines. They have a very interesting concept, the Skylon Spaceplane, a single-stage-to-orbit plane that goes to space directly. India is interesting because they’ve been able to do a fair bit on a much lower budget. They got to Mars at a fraction of the price it took us to get there. The Chinese space program is a big part of their national prestige right now.”
Chang points to the U.K. Catapult concept as inspiration in the way it “drives innovation in the space sector and other sectors,” she says. “It’s a little bit beyond NASA. NASA is government for government. This is more supporting new business formation, new ideas. It seems like it works well. Other countries are setting up space agencies and enacting public-private partnerships inspired by national missions — and potential tax revenues — in order to develop organic space capabilities. This is another example of the drop in costs — cost of materials, hardware, software and know-how.”
NASA is seeking to add more than $1 billion to its $21.5 billion budget to help meet an accelerated goal of returning astronauts to the moon — including what would be the first woman on the moon — by 2024.
If it meets that deadline, it would be more than a half-century since the last time a human stepped foot on the moon. To many, such talk signals a renewed level of ambition generally. Better internet access is all fine and good, but there are, after all, more substantial gains to be had through space travel.
Says Hsu: “It’s really relevant with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 to remember that it’s not easy to throw some resources at a problem and expect that it’s a given you will have success. I’m not trying to diminish the value of social networking. Those are valuable businesses. But I think we also need to not forget as a society that for human progress, in government and industry, people have to worry about the big stuff, the hard stuff, the intractable problems. There are many domains in which we want to devote some attention to have these big breakthroughs.”
This new era of space also arrives now as a way of moving forward around a potentially positive and unified national goal.
“The tremendous strength of this country is technology, and a new space industry is happening here, it’s not happening in many other places,” says Siggelkow. “We have resources and support systems that allow these developments to occur here. We have an entrepreneurial infrastructure and world-class scientists from all over the world to work on these issues.”
More broadly, the current focus on space is reaffirming of science. “For us to solve important problems, science has been a pretty good tool for the human race,” he says. “Obviously there are two sides to many technologies. But it has allowed us to achieve incredible things.”