Speakers at the National Space Society’s annual International Space Development Conference deliberated on strategies for moving forward on building a sustainable space-based economy. The annual conference, held in St. Louis, Missouri this year, attracted visionaries from nearly every generation of American space exploration.
Developing market opportunities in space will help spur investment and development in space architectures and infrastructure — the benefits of which terrestrial companies will soon be able to reap. Or at least, that’s the idea. While further space development has been talked about since the early 1970s, little progress has been made in realizing those goals.
The US’s government-led approach to space, coupled with extremely high costs to access space, has resulted in a trickle of technological advancements and an attrition of public interest in space over the past 50 years, said Greg Autry, assistant professor at University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.
“Things will not remain the same,” said Autry, who sat on President Trump’s transition team as part of the so-called NASA landing team. “If you stay wedded to an old model or an old technology, I assure you, you will be disappointed in your life.”
The status quo is overdue for a shakeup, and the conference attendees said there’s reason to believe that a shakeup is on the horizon. Commercial space flight has boomed over the past two years, thanks to the likes of Elon Musk, whose SpaceX company has helped not only to reduce the cost of spaceflight for commercial entities, but has also helped to inspire a new generation in space.
“Lately we’ve had a shift in the mindset, simply because we have people like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, we have people that are blazing their own path,” said Dennis Wingo, CEO of Skycorp, a company focused on developing new technologies to reduce manufacturing costs of spacecraft and space systems. “It’s time for us to rethink it, and we haven’t really rethought it yet.”
For Autry, that rethink should revolve around establishing productive relationships between government entities and commercial entities, and between the old guard of space and the new space entrants.
“The economic solution, in my opinion, is not ‘or’. We’ll get to a point where we have a space economy that generates real revenue,” Autry said. “There is a way forward, but it’s going to have to be an ‘and’ solution. The key is getting a sustainable space economy that pays taxes.”
Forget exploration: let’s talk industrialization
Many players see the first step in further our progress in space is to began with building infrastructure within the cislunar space that’ll support and enable future economic development.
The key, experts agreed, is deriving economic return from space industry. “If we don’t walk away from the exchange with positive energy gain, which we call economic return, then we’re not going to be doing it for very long,” said Brad Blair, founding partner of NewSpace Analytics, a business and operations consulting firm for private new space companies. “But if we do walk away with positive energy gain, we have a whole new environment that our technology allows us to move into to expand the human race.”
And that’ll require a radically different role for government to play in space. “We got seduced by this idea that the government was the place to do it,” Wingo said. “The government is the ultimate investor. We forgot that with Apollo. Now, the government wants to be the referee, the coach, the general manager, the quarterback and the cheerleader, all at once.”
Wingo, Autry and others likened such developments to the building of railroad lines across the US, a feat that was completed with heavy investment from the US government that eventually enabled new forms of commerce. There are plenty of other examples: telephone lines, commercial aviation, and the Internet, to name a few.
By shifting the government’s focus away from exploration and towards infrastructure building, the government can serve a more important — and helpful — role, said Charles Miller, president and CEO of NexGen Space, a consulting firm offering client-based services at the intersection of commercial space, civil space, national security space, and public policy. Miller also served on the NASA landing team. “I think we need a complete transformation away from a space exploration focus to a space industrialization focus, a space development focus and economic development,” he said.
Step 1: Make better use of public-private partnerships
The cost of launching anything into space is still a big financial obstacle and remains a formidable barrier to entry for any commercial entity looking to make money in space. Thankfully, the price of launch has finally seen some significant reductions, thanks to commercial entities like SpaceX.
In the US, the big question being grappled with by industry insiders is how government agencies — aka NASA — can spur the creation of a commercial space-based economy. The high risks involved in launching craft into space means private enterprise is less likely to fund large, and potentially impotent, ventures aimed at building out the infrastructure needed to support a space economy.
“There is a real case to be made that public-private partnerships, properly designed with many options, that you can marry the best of entrepreneurs with government and do much better than either on its own,” Miller said.
NASA’s commercial orbital transportation services (COTS) program is case in point. In 2005, NASA made an $800 million investment towards commercial entities developing launch vehicles that would serve the growing commercial launch market. The goal was to eventually turn over routine commercial spaceflights to the ISS to private enterprise, and the plan worked brilliantly. The program resulted in the creation of SpaceX’s Falcon and ULA Atlas launchers.
“Back in 2012, the United States had less than ten percent of the commercial launch market around the world. This year we’ve got more than fifty percent,” Autry said. “That’s almost entirely due to that small $800 million investment that NASA made in the COTS program.”
The COTS program should serve as a model for government moving forward, experts said. And while government can and should help subsidize infrastructure building, the commercial players will need to take the lead if a sustainable economy is to be realized in cislunar space.
“The important thing about commercial is that a commercial product or service, whether it has government support or not to get started, addresses an actual market need, and not a governmental one,” Autry said. “Commercial is economically sustainable: it creates new economic value and it creates new GDP.”
Future and emerging markets in space might include manufacturing, satellite servicing and assembly, debris mitigation, solar power generation and lunar and asteroid in situ resource utilization.
Progress means solving the ‘political problem’
Success in space development will hinge on overcoming what speakers referred to as the political problem — getting Congressional members on board with re-structuring NASA centers without jeopardizing jobs — as well as difficulties in overcoming what might be deemed governmental inertia.
“We are so tied up with a government agency in the center of this, it’s completely driven by politics, and politics always wins,” Miller said. “Anyone that brings a plan to the table has to solve the politics. You need to bring a plan to the table that solves technical problems, financial problems, business problems, market problems, and also the political problems. That makes it very difficult.”
Wingo noted that he and his panel cohorts have been talking about space development “since before my hair was gray.” The pervasive hope among industry experts at ISDC is that this time around, the potential will translate into reality — economic reality.
“We have the opportunity, with nine billion people on the Earth in the next 33 years, to be able to service those people with resources from the solar system,” said Dennis Wingo, speaking on a panel at ISDC last month. “It’s these kind of things. Whether or not the government does it, Jeff Bezos is going to do it. It’s going to happen. Our goal should be to do everything we can to help support that.”
And Miller, for one, is hopeful. “I’m very excited about the future of space development and industrialization and settlement,” he said. “I’m as optimistic as I’ve ever been.”