This is part three of my discussion on space businesses outside NASA (here are links to Part 1 and Part 2). The goal here, as with previous entries, is to introduce you to the different aspects of the space business. Not that I don’t love NASA–I do!–but there’s sometimes a misperception that the only way to work on things that fly into or through the universe above Earth, that you have to work at the U.S. Government’s space agency. Today I’ll be talking about some of the cool businesses operating (or planning to work) in space. Read on!
Space is busy!
As far back as 1945, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke invented the communications satellite–placing “radio” relays around the Earth at an orbital altitude of 22,300 miles (35,888 kilometers). From this position, called geosynchronous orbit or GEO, a satellite relay could receive signals from Earth and broadcast them to the entire side of the globe.
Less than 20 years later, one of the first space-related companies–still in existence today–was created. COMSAT (the Communication Satellite Corporation) started as a federally funded organization in 1963 and turned its first profit by 1970, providing worldwide communication services. Now, companies like SpaceX and OneWeb are planning constellations (groups of satellites) numbering in the thousands to provide worldwide internet coverage. If you’re someone who remembers when receiving news “Live via satellite” was a big deal (and I confess, I’m one of them), this sort of development is magical.
Today, comsats are so embedded into our infrastructure, they’re practically boring. One of the other early uses of Earth orbit (not just GEO but many others) was as a place to spy on hostile nations; early on, it was just the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but eventually others joined in as well. Today, companies such as Digital Globe, Planet, Satellite Imaging Corporation, and others are routinely offering images with less than one-meter resolution on the open market. Since then, other companies have taken advantage of this “high ground” to provide useful services, including weather and climate monitoring, land use and environmental monitoring, global positioning systems (GPS), product tracking, and search and rescue assistance. Some of the world’s satellites are government-run or -sponsored (like GPS), others are fully commercial.
Bottom line: commercial satellites have become big business, and many things you wouldn’t consider as space related, such as banking transactions, still pass through satellites overhead, and there are more to come.
It’s a big universe…
So far, humanity has only found ways to make productive and profitable use of Earth orbit. As I noted in an earlier post, we even have companies making money launching cargo (and eventually astronauts) to the International Space Station. So far, we’ve not seen private-sector activity beyond Earth orbit. However, that could change.
Eyes on the prizes
The Google Lunar X Prize, started in 2007, is a $30 million prize slated for whichever company is able to launch a vehicle to the Moon, land it safely, travel or deploy a rover to travel at least 500 meters across the surface, and transmit high-definition video back to Earth. So far, only one company has completed the paperwork to get U.S. Government approval to land on the Moon (what, you thought you could just send something up?): Moon Express. That hasn’t stopped other companies from investing in this project as well. Think there won’t be a demand for (or money to be made from) live video from the Moon? This past February over 30 million people clicked on a zoo’s website to monitor the pregnancy of a giraffe. If each person clicking on the lunar lander’s website paid a dollar, the winning company would double their X Prize winnings. More practically, if companies do not charge for people to view their video, they still can attract the attention of investors.
In a similar fashion, the original “X Prize” competition (now called the Ansari X Prize for its primary sponsor), founded in 1994 by space visionary Peter Diamandis, offered $10 million to the first company that could launch a vehicle carrying the equivalent of three people to space (62 miles or 100 kilometers) and back safely twice within two weeks. This prize-based approach to spurring innovation harkens back to the 1920s and the early days of commercial aviation, when flyers like Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic nonstop to win the Orteig Prize ($25,000).
The prize-based approach to development helped advance the state of the art in aviation by appealing to people’s competitive spirit (or greed) to come up with aircraft or technologies capable of making aviation safe for the public. NASA itself has experimented with the prize-based model as well to encourage the development of space technologies through its Centennial Challenges program. The whole point of using prizes and economic incentives for space is to turn space from an arena focused on military competition or government-based science to an economic market and money-making opportunity to hasten the day when private citizens can live and work on the final frontier. We’re not there yet, but some companies are working on it anyway.
The winner of the Ansari prize was Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites. British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group, knew a good thing when he saw it, and pledged to work with Rutan to build larger space vehicles capable of carrying more people for the purposes of space tourism. Thus was born Virgin Galactic (and, later, Virgin Orbit, which is focused on small satellite launches).
Other companies tried for the X Prize as well. In all, 26 teams invested well over $100 million to pursue a $10 million prize. Only one company won, and of the companies that competed, only a few still exist today, but the prize methodology proved that the private-sector model could stimulate economic activity.
Today the company that’s most likely to be Virgin Galactic’s competition is Blue Origin, a rocket company founded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin has been building and testing a suborbital rocket for space tourism activities called New Shepard (named for America’s first suborbital astronaut Alan Shepard). Blue Origin is also looking to use the lessons they learn from building reusable suborbital rockets to build reusable orbital rockets as well. The idea behind Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin’s experiences is to launch people up to the border of space, give them 4-5 minutes of free-fall microgravity, during which they can float around the cabin and look out the windows at the curvature of the Earth before returning to their seats and returning to solid ground.
Who knows? If space tourism eventually becomes a thing (so far, no one has ridden one of these rockets as a paying customer yet), that could provide the money/income needed to build a functioning private-sector economy in space, not just on the ground. Which leads me to my next topic…
Space stations for rent
Right now, the only place space tourists can go for an orbital destination is the International Space Station (ISS), though the first space tourist to fly was video game entrepreneur Dennis Tito, who flew aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket to the Soviet-era space station Mir. Since then, several other individuals have flown to Mir (before it was deorbited) or ISS through a company called Space Adventures. However, real estate and hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow has created Bigelow Aerospace to create the first privately built inflatable space stations. These stations, drawing upon an inflatable Space Station module NASA created in the 1990s called TransHab.
Having launched two inflatable stations and recently sending an inflatable module to ISS, Bigelow’s company is now working on a much larger, free-flying station capable of supporting up to six people. Is the world ready for full-blown space tourism? We’ll have to wait and see.
Beware of flying rocks
Another potential method of privatizing space-based activity could be asteroid mining. Why asteroids? Well, depending on the asteroid in question, they could comprise a variety of useful materials, including platinum-group metals and water ice. The metals would be useful for building structures in space or fulfilling needs here on Earth. Water ice could be used as water or split into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. There is also some logic to the idea that if we learn to manipulate asteroids, we could keep them from crashing into the Earth in the way that such rocks killed off the dinosaurs.
This is a bit of a hot topic, as many of the treaties created by members of the United Nations(especially the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Treaty, which neither the U.S. or USSR signed), were designed to avoid expanding superpower competition to the stars, specifically forbid nations from claiming celestial bodies as their own. The treaties don’t say anything about private citizens or corporations owning or mining the Moon or asteroids, so on that small hook, entrepreneurs are looking to send miners to space. Two companies in particular are working toward asteroid mining: Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources. The international political game got more interesting recently when Deep Space Industries partnered with the Duchy of Luxembourg to obtain investment and legal support for their proposed operations.
Will all this actually happen? We don’t know, exactly. No one has mined an asteroid yet. But it’s an interesting idea, if possible. NASA had proposed an Asteroid Redirect Mission, which would have collected or captured a small asteroid for testing mining-type operations in space. Still something to think about.
Out far, and onward yet
And who’s to say that the private sector won’t settle Mars one day? SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk has announced a plan to launch a Dragon spacecraft with passengers aboard to fly around the Moon. He also rolled out a plan to settle the planet Mars to make humanity a “multi-planet species.”
Ambition vs. reality
All of these activities are exciting and reflect a new attitude in the investor class to spend money on space-related ventures. However, the reality is that we’re probably still a few decades away from a lunar Hilton or orbital In-N-Out Burger joint. The private sector still has to prove that it can move people safely into and through space, and a lot of other discoveries and technologies need to happen before we start filling our material needs with ore from asteroids. And there will be further debates if and when private-sector organizations decide to set up shop permanently on the Moon, Mars, or asteroids. I hope I get to see some of this in my lifetime.
As for you aspiring space writers, I have one more bit of territory to cover, and it’s related to space efforts being conducted outside the United States. Interesting things are happening everywhere!