The commercial space sector is surrounded by a lot of hype. Though tech executives have promised us Mars communities and moon bases, the space economy has stayed distinctively local thus far, at least in a cosmic sense. But last year, we passed a significant milestone: for the first time in human history, we were able to reach space in a vehicle that was created and owned by a private company with an eye toward establishing a cheap space station. It was a major first step toward creating an economy for space as well as in space. It is difficult to overestimate the ramifications for industry, legislation, and society at large.
Read More: Phantom Space
The space-for-earth economy, or the production of products or services in space for consumption on Earth, accounted for 95% of the $366 billion in revenue gained in the space sector in 2019. The space-for-earth economy encompasses national security satellites, earth observation capabilities, internet and telecommunications infrastructure, and more. Forecasts for this economy’s future are positive, despite the fact that study indicates it confronts the monopolization and overpopulation problems that usually occur when businesses vie for a limited natural resource. Companies from a range of industries have already started to use satellite technology and access to space to promote innovation and efficiency in their earthbound goods and services. This is because launch and space gear prices have generally decreased, which has attracted new participants into the market.
On the other hand, the space-for-space economy, which refers to products and services created in space and utilized in space, has had difficulty taking off. Examples of this include mining asteroids or the Moon for resources needed to build in-space dwellings or stock refueling stations. Research NASA commissioned in the 1970s anticipated the emergence of a space-based economy that would dwarf the space-for-earth industry (and eventually the entire terrestrial economy as well) and meet the needs of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people living in space. Such a vision, if realized, would fundamentally alter the way we all conduct business, live our lives, and run our society. However, since there have never been more than 13 individuals in space at once, this goal remains nothing more than science fiction.
However, there are indications today that the first steps of a truly space-for-space economy could finally be at hand. A new age of commercial spaceflight is beginning with SpaceX’s recent accomplishments (working with NASA) and the impending initiatives of Virgin Galactic, Boeing, and Blue Origin to launch humans into space sustainably. These companies aim to, and are able to, take private citizens into space as visitors, passengers, and eventually as settlers. This will allow businesses to begin providing space-appropriate goods and services to meet the demand that these individuals will create over the coming decades.
Greetings from the (Business) Space Age
In a recent study, we looked at how the 1960s paradigm of centralized, government-directed human space activities has given way over the past 20 years to a new model where public space efforts are taking center stage alongside private goals. Government-led, centralized space programs will naturally concentrate on space-related activities that benefit the general public, such national security, fundamental research, and patriotism. This makes sense as the costs of these programs have to be shown to benefit the people they serve, and the people these governments serve are almost all people on the planet.
The private sector, as opposed to governments, is willing to provide individuals the freedom to follow their own interests rather than those of the state and then meet the demand they generate. SpaceX was founded with this vision in mind, and in just twenty years, it has completely disrupted the rocket launch industry, taking 60% of the global market for commercial launches and developing ever-larger spacecraft that will transport people not only to the International Space Station (ISS) but also to its own planned settlement on Mars.
These days, the space-for-space industry is restricted to providing goods to the few astronauts working for NASA and other government agencies who are currently in orbit. Although SpaceX has lofty goals of enabling a huge number of commercial space passengers, all of its present space-for-space endeavors are a reaction to requests by government clients, such as NASA. However, as launch costs decline and companies such as SpaceX are able to take advantage of economies of scale and send more people into space, increasing demand from the private sector (i.e., tourists and settlers, not government workers) may convert these proof-of-concept projects into a viable, large-scale business.
While SpaceX is an example of this model—selling to NASA with the goal of someday developing and growing into a wider private market—it is by no means the only business following this strategy. For example, although SpaceX is concentrated on space-for-space transportation, manufacturing will play a significant role in this emerging business.
Since it 3D printed a wrench on board the International Space Station in 2014, Made In Space, Inc. has led the way in manufacturing “in space, for space.” These days, the business is looking at additional goods that terrestrial clients could be prepared to pay to have produced in zero-gravity, such premium fiber-optic cable. However, Made In orbit is hoping to be well-positioned to meet the manufacturing demands of future private sector spacecraft, as the business just won a $74 million contract to 3D print huge metal beams in orbit for use on NASA spacecraft. Made In Space’s current collaboration with NASA may be the first step toward supporting a range of private-sector manufacturing applications for which the costs of manufacturing on Earth and launching into space would be prohibitive, much as SpaceX started out by supplying NASA but hopes to eventually serve a much larger, private-sector market.