Scene Report: Space Tech
Author: Winona Fischer
Estimated reading time: 5 min
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In 1986 President Ronald W. Reagan addressed the nation in response to the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and his memorable speech pointed out the infancy of space travel: “We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers.” (NASA, 2020). Back then, at the dawn of space exploration, the view persisted that only governments could possibly engage in such complex endeavours and that these pioneers only belong to government agencies. While this view persisted for a few decades, this has changed, stirring up the governmental monopolies creating a competitive market in which startups are taking an influential role.
This is largely to the role of a few ostentatious space pioneers who as visionaries dare to think outside the box in order to reach new heights. This became most apparent when in 2012 SpaceX became the first company to dock a spacecraft at the International Space Station, despite only being founded in 2002. One of the most renown of these visionaries is Elon Musk, who as the founder of SpaceX was able to completely transform the market for space exploration by developing a reusable rocket that beats the traditional ‘disposable’ rockets not only cost-wise, but also in terms of payload. As it is stated on the companies website: “Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two” (SpaceX, 2020). That Musk is trying to venture deeper into space becomes clear when one recalls how back in 2013 Musk stated “I’d like to die on Mars, just not on impact” (Musk). What is the reason for the privatization of space exploration that was able to break the governmental monopoly, what are recent trends and what impact do startups have in this scene? Continue reading and find the answers to these questions.
Privatisation and development of space exploration
The privatization of space exploration is a very recent phenomenon, as mentioned in the introduction, in an industry that barely scratches existing for a century. Following the Second World War, space exploration was firmly in the hands of governmental institutions and it was primarily a matter of competition between the two hegemons, the US and the USSR. From the launch of the world’s first satellite Sputnik 1, to Yuri Gagarin as the first human in space or to Neil Armstrong who with his famous words “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” was the first man to surface the moon – space exploration was not motivated by commercial interests.
This has changed as companies started noting the potential and started searching for more efficient and cheaper solutions in order to commercialize upon them. While there are many ways companies can contribute to space exploration, the activities were divided in 2013 into three different subcategories “a) Space Launch Vehicle (reusable and expandable); b) Space Tourism and c) Mining in Space.” (Devezas, Belderrain et al., 2013).
While the idea of space tourism has been around since the dawn of space exploration, the first kind of space tourism occurred from 2001 until 2009 when the American company Space Adventures offered flights to the International Space Station. Estimated at around $20 million, the first space flight ever sold was not a bargain though (CNN 2013). While it turned quiet for a few years around the project, not due to a lack of interest but rather due to a lack of excess capacity, Virgin Galactic entered the scene in 2012 when they started selling tickets for suborbital space tourism abroad their commercial spacecraft at a fraction of the cost that Dennis Tito, the first space tourist, paid.
Founded by the British businessman Sir Richard Branson, also known as another flamboyant entrepreneur, Virgin Galactic intends to down the price to 250,000$ and while it has already received about 600 reservations – the company was forced in 2018 for a while to stop selling tickets (ABC, 2020) – around 400 additional people have put down a deposit of $1,000 in order to participate in Virgin’s resumed ticket selling process. Space Adventures also plans its return by offering orbital flights with a spacewalk option and laps of the Moon by late 2021. Axiom Space, another American aerospace company, plans in the near future to conduct the first-ever fully private spaceflight to the International Space Station and in the future it intends to build the world’s first commercial space station. While one assumes that these companies, with their ambitious plans, must be industry heavyweights, one might be mislead.
Small startups with ambitious plans that do not necessarily have been around for more than a decade have a significant impact, as the case of SpaceX vibrantly displays. That these “startups” succeed is also dependent on the fact that investors are supporting these endeavours and are optimistic that the orbital tourism can be transferred into space.
Colonisation of Space
Apart from the fact that recreational tours in space will definitely be of an important development in the near future, another major consideration will move into the focus of discussions. Talking about the colonisation of space, one should firstly clarify what is meant by this more precisely. Generally colonisation of space is aiming at the concept of ongoing and autonomous settling of human beings outside of the planet earth (New World Encyclopedia, 2020). Sounding quite science fiction like it is indeed one of the major targets in a long run for many national space institutions and programs. Interestingly it is also moving in the focus of discussions because of the increasing consumption on earth and the therefore declining amount of resources, because we keep missing a sustainable way of life.
Therefore colonisation and the linked access to new resources is something many nations are trying to prioritize. Especially with the rise of more and more Industrialized countries, the competition for resources is being accelerated. According to NASA space colonies could be a potential answer to this described problem. Some major problems are still getting in the way of implementing this solution, for instance microgravity for sure and also the high levels of radiation, but if this could be solved human beings would have a much greater access to other resources and raw materials as they have never had before. Moreover human beings would get a totally different approach and understanding of earth’s ecology (NASA, 2020). It will be an exciting development how nations and as already elaborated on also private companies will compete about the conquest of space in a very long run. Having said that, the legal aspect is something that will challenge many governments and organizations. There is no official legal framework yet, but surely this is something which will provoke many debates (Aeon, 2020).
Startups in the scene
Especially startups in space technology have made huge advancement in the last couple years – taking in an indispensable role as great innovators in the industry. Fast developing technologies but especially venture capital funding, also from the private sector, has pushed space tech startups immense. As already mentioned earlier SpaceX represents a great example that not only governmental institutions but also private firms with external fundings can be of a driving force in the industry. In accordance with Space Angels, in the first quarter of 2019 almost double the amount of equity capital in comparison to the last quarter of 2018 has been funded into space companies – in deed aggregating a sum of $ 1.7 Billion. More precisely the majority of that money was poured in satellite businesses (79%) and followed by fundings for logistical operations (14%) (MIT, 2020).
Looking at a great first example one can definitely keep an eye on Relativity Space. Astonishingly the american startup raised more than $140 Million last year for its 3-D printed rockets. With the goal of being the first rocket on mars, the founder is just on the right track because especially the time it takes to construct such rockets is intensively shortened with their 3-D technology (TechCrunch, 2019).
Another great example in the scene is a startup named Rocket Labs. Founded in 2006 in New Zealand the company has operated many commercial flights and in addition to that has launched its first payload in the beginning of this year from New Zealand to Orbit.
Another important example in the industry is MoonExpress. The startup which was founded in 2010 provides “commercial lunar transportations and explorations” (The Startup, 2020). Their mission is to provide a reliable pathway for frequent access to the Moon in order to make more discoveries and research possibly.
Mining in space
Mining in space is still in its infancy, but little doubt remains about the potential it holds. To give an example of its potential one has to turn to the asteroid 16 Psyche to which the NASA is planning to send a probe in 2022 as several news outlets are reporting. Being made of precious metals such as gold and platinum, the resources contained in the asteroid are estimated by Bloomberg at current market prices at $700 quintillion or as the news outlet itself put it: “enough to give everyone on the planet $93 billion” (Bloomberg, 2019). While this of course does not hold true, based on the simple Smithian rule of Supply and Demand, this little example showcases the potential space mining holds and why investors are also keen on providing companies with the potential to let the vision of space mining become reality.
While states are important and involved actors, private companies are pursuing their vision of space mining and the harvesting of extraplanetary resources. The whole business started to develop back in 2012 when the startup Planetary Resources was able to raise $50 million by 2016, notably amongst those backers were Google’s Eric Schmidt or James Cameron who with his film ‘Avatar’ at least in the motion pictures let the dream become reality. Further companies appeared such as Deep Space Industries or Asteroid Mining Cooperation and they all approach the topic differently. While the Deep Space Industries envisions using steam-powered thruster for their vehicles to get to the asteroids, Asteroid Mining Cooperation plans to first send smaller vehicles in order to gather only the most valuable resources before moving to large scale exploitation, while Planetary Resources plans to send robotic vehicles to do all the work (World Tribune, 2020).
So far, companies have failed though to deliver on their promise of generating profits from their business model and while in 2019 the MIT Technology Review deemed space mining to be a bubble that burst after 7 years, the prospects for it remain large and the companies have not yet given up on their vision (MIT Technology Review, 2019). That space mining will be important in one way or another remains undoubtable as deep space exploration and colonization of extraterrestrial planets are intertwined – if not only for the harvesting of necessary energy sources.
While having given a short overview about the scene and having answered the initial questions, the commercialization of space remains an unknown and we know as much about its future as we know about space itself. Many questions remain open and thus investing into this scene is always, in nature, of high-risk and high-reward. That all being mentioned, the legal situation about activities and ventures into space remain uncertain and also its ethical dimension has been largely neglected here. Is it adequate to envision a life off-earth when earth is currently being destroyed by climate change and thus considering the earth to be disposable? Open questions have to be answered in the near future, as capacities are growing. One thing that remains certain though amidst all this fundamental uncertainty is that the commercialization of space which is largely driven by startups holds great potential.
Thorbecke, C. (2020, February). ABC News. Virgin Galactic to resume selling tickets to space, reports skyrocketing demand. Retrieved from: https://abcnews.go.com/Business/virgin-galactic-resume-selling-tickets-space-reports-skyrocketing/story?id=69229936
Carrington, D. (2013, August). What does a $250,000 ticket to space with Virgin Galactic actually buy you. Retrieved from: http://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/virgin-galactic-250000-ticket-to-space/index.html
Smith, N. (2019, July). That Giant Asteroid of Gold Won’t Make Us Richer. Retrieved from: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-07-08/asteroid-16-psyche-and-all-that-gold-won-t-make-earth-richer
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