Combatting Climate Change in the New Space Frontier

This year marks the 75th anniversary of our first foray into space.

On March 22, 1946, directly on the heels of the official introduction of the U.S. outer space research program, the first American-built rocket, the WAC Corporal, was launched out of the Earth’s atmosphere. The rocket soared to an altitude of 50 miles from the earth’s surface and into a new space frontier. It was a momentous event, but the launch of the NASA Bumper 2 two stage rocket in July 1950 truly marked the next chapter in space flight. Its mission was to support research on the earth’s upper atmosphere to better understand its importance to humanity on earth. The Bumper 2 reached altitudes of almost 250 miles. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into Earth orbit, the Sputnik 1. One short year later, the U.S. reciprocated by successfully getting Explorer 1 to orbit.

The first race to space was on. When President Kennedy famously challenged America to send a man to the moon, he fueled the global competition. Space became a matter of national pride and security in the 1960s. Government entities were driven by a spectrum of reasons — fear, rivalry, conflict, curiosity, responsibility, and hope for humanity. Neil Armstrong’s famous 1969 moon landing represented some of our very first steps into the future we now know, though the world is vastly different. Over 70 countries have some kind of space program. More than a dozen countries boast space launch capabilities.

Wonderment and Wealth

Our eyes have been fixed on the sky since the middle of the twentieth century. The U.S. first ventured into space because we could, because we had to, and because our government — through military, intelligence, and civil sectors — drove us in that direction. The combination of human wonderment and the pursuit of opportunity has motivated powerful innovation. As government and private sector organizations have pushed each boundary, we have moved deeper into the Information Age and raised the level of discussion about the possibilities of space.

History shows us that whatever can be commercialized will be commercialized. And space is no exception. Since the late 1990s, we’ve seen the commercialization of space has taken precedence over government pursuits. New space communication structures that lack hierarchy and boundaries are opening up traditionally untouchable spheres of power, influence, and association.

As individuals and organizations grow to recognize the tremendous opportunities presented by space, a new kind of race has ignited. We are poised to take another giant leap, this time with the promise of immense economic gains. A handful of companies, including SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb, and TeleSAT are racing to build and launch thousands of communication satellites. If they are successful in the intent to bring the internet to even the most remote and rural corners of the world, these organizations will connect “the other three billion” disadvantaged users. They also are scrambling to claim their place as a leader in the competitive ‘internet of things’ by satisfying humanity’s insatiable demand to connect people and things.

Financial institutions such as Bank of American and Morgan Stanley project that revenues for the global space industry could exceed $1 trillion by 2040. If this happens, it will mean almost tripling the size of today’s space industry. Much of this growth appears to be coming from investments in satellite broadband capabilities — investments in earth observations from space seem to be flat or minor at best.

This commercial focus raises the question of what we might miss if we put too much focus on the possibilities of space to support growth in consumer markets.

The New (Normal) Space Frontier

Only 25 years ago, the idea of connecting eight billion people across the globe to one another via a “world-wide-web” provided by a fleet of communication constellations was the pipedream of entrepreneurs and space visionaries. With the blistering pace of advancement and adoption, that vision is close to becoming a reality. Its impact on humankind is almost beyond measure.

In 2020, almost 60% of the world’s population had access to the Internet. On any given day, more than four billion people actively use some form of social media. This number is incredible, considering that only 68% of the world's population uses modernized sanitation facilities or that globally, at least two billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with feces. Almost 800 million people still don’t have access to clean water through a household connection, public standpipe, borehole well, protected dug well, protected spring, or rainwater collection.1

If the burning question of the 1960’s was: how and when will we get into space, today’s question is what we can do in space (and with space) now that we have gotten there?

As we witness the increasing ubiquity of this new normal of space, it raises a necessary question — as our businesses work to expand markets, are we considering the point of this effort? What critical global issues must be addressed to create and sustain the very markets we are attempting to create? How are we thinking about those issues with regard to our own corporate growth strategy? How will we ensure execution of our plans doesn't have unintended consequences that threaten to create negative impacts to the communities we want to interact with?

Earth and Space Convergence

Let’s use climate change as an example of how this commercialization of space could play out. Space-based technologies and space-derived information play a key role in climate knowledge, science, monitoring, and early warning systems that help assess how vulnerable communities are to climate change. They also can help monitor the effectiveness of adaptation strategies. Because of these potential upsides of the convergence and collaboration between space technology, space industry, and those addressing the issue of climate change on earth, we expect the relationships should be strengthened.

And they are. We’re seeing new partnerships consisting of the space industry, financial investment community, and commercial industries. These new entities are focused on addressing climate change, working together in support of joint environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives to address the impact of climate on humanity.

With that foundation laid for the next step into our relationship with space, we can begin to ask questions including:

  • How should space companies address ESG (specifically climate) as they accelerate production for new launch and satellite capabilities?
  • How are VCs, angels, and PEs incorporating ESG and sustainability into their space investment strategies?
  • What financial gain incentives could be applied to greatly accelerate the development of sustainability in space companies and across the larger future space infrastructure?

We have to address these questions with careful, human-centric leadership. Our long view of the value of new space-based capabilities must go beyond connecting humans, it must also consider solving the hard problems humanity faces now and as we look past the immediate horizon.

Government and commercial leaders of space entities must accept the pressure of changing to a new normal that takes into account social and environmental issues on earth. These forces are necessary fuel for the potential of a vastly different, more commercially viable space. Business and government goals will be achieved only through collaboration, which likely will happen outside traditional organizational boundaries. If leaders resist or oppose such pressures or their intended outcomes, they will jeopardize the very things that will secure space’s potential. Space leaders must unify their efforts to effectively embrace the unique pressures that foster innovation and create sustainability that can support the earth and all of mankind.

We’ve traveled billions of miles since Kennedy gave us the imperative to make space exploration a ‘matter of national pride and security.’ Space is no longer a far-off frontier. It is an ever awe-inspiring but tangible and present reality that is shaping how we process information, imagery, and communication across the world. And just as it was in the 1960s, it is those who lean into the future that will be the ones to drive us forward.