Looking Beyond Launch to Spot The Real Value of Space
Space. It was the final frontier in the 1960s — a source of dreams, fantasies, and ambitions. Today’s space ambitions are no less compelling than those of the ‘60s, but they focus on the commercial possibilities of space, rather than the governmental security issues that drove exploration in the early days. And its billionaires, including Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos are clamoring to drive our attention to the possibilities of space. Their race to the moon and beyond has many questioning what the value of investments in space could be.
In a recent podcast discussion about my book Convergence, I was asked the very valid questions, “Why should we get excited about a couple of billionaires going to space?” and “What does it mean for the rest of us?”
Many of us may have been asking the same question as we curiously watched a battle of ego and money to see who would be the first billionaire to fly to space and return home. It didn’t take long for Branson to win the challenge. Bezos is close on his heels. But then what? With numerous and pressing issues facing humanity such as climate, disease, access to drinkable water, and food shortages, we might ask a different question — why aren’t the affluent focusing on some of these more immediate and dire concerns, rather than building what feels almost like a carnival ride for the rich?
The realistic answer is that the investments by these few billionaires are important to opening possibilities in space that could solve our hardest and most pressing issues here on earth.
The Commercial Reality of Space
The first thing to clarify is that the commercialization of space is not a future possibility. It happened 20-25 years ago. The congestion of communications and remote sensing satellites in space signals its growing commercial viability. The recent space launch and vehicle advancements are signals as well. We have been exploiting the commercial potential of space, and the maturing market needs new sources of capital. Musk, Bezos, Branson, and many others are bringing this capital. For those far-sighted enough to take advantage of its possibilities, space will be a new wealth creator.
The Space Foundation estimates the space economy currently is worth $424 billion, with projections reaching approximately $1 trillion in the next decade. Today, 85 nations (almost half of the sovereign countries in the world) are operating in space. Each of them is creating new opportunities for increased wealth and betterment for humanity. These opportunities range from commercial to manufacturing, to tourism, to the very health and wellbeing of humanity.
Surveillance and Monitoring
The commercial possibilities of space are intriguing and far-ranging. Consider developing the capability for retrieving data from a satellite that can measure gravitational pull to discover holes in the earth’s surface. Such data can allow monitors to determine details like whether a hole is a new mining operation or a sinkhole eating city buildings. Monitoring could result in predicting and avoiding a tragic event that saves lives. Much like monitoring weather, monitoring changes of the earth’s crust could become a commercial endeavor.
Space also offers rich natural resources to those able to extract them so it is unsurprising that we are witnessing the maturation of the space mining industry. Knowing who owns the real estate and who has rights to mine the moon, asteroids, and other planets is critical as companies and countries compete to develop business plans for space mining. The U.S. has passed a law governing mineral rights in space and last year, Japan’s Hayabusa-2 probe returned asteroid material to Earth, advancing efforts to bring critical minerals from space to earth.
Travel and Tourism
The number of people who want to get off the planet is increasing. As it does, space tourism is becoming less of an idea and more of a popular reality. Those working on this next-frontier opportunity see a need for space gas stations, supply depots, repair shops and rest stops on superhighways connecting Earth and Mars and beyond. The U.S., UAE, and China already have sent missions to Mars, paving the way in building these superhighways. I have faith that this type of space infrastructure will open other opportunities beyond tourism to serve humanity.
The space environment provides a unique laboratory for conducting research that can’t be replicated on the ground. Without the constraints of the atmosphere, and free from the effects of gravity, the environment can enable researchers to develop and test innovative technologies and products that might not otherwise be achievable. For years, the International Space Station (ISS) has provided the environment to conduct such experiments in a wide variety of fields including human research, space medicine, life sciences, physical sciences, astronomy, and meteorology. Physical space for research experiments on the ISS is somewhat limited, and the process and paperwork to get something on board takes years. With the creation of the space infrastructure that is currently being pursued, it’s likely that the next headlines we hear about will point to a market for commercial research experiments in space.
Consider the issue of salmonella infection. It is one of the most common forms of food poisoning in the U.S., resulting in almost one million illnesses a year. (The World Health Organization projects that salmonella diarrhea is one of the top three causes of infant mortality.) A human vaccine could make dramatic improvements in global health. The evolution of vaccine development against salmonella was streamlined with the help of the microgravity environment on the ISS. And while we still do not have a human vaccine against salmonella, vaccines for poultry are helping to prevent salmonella contamination at its source, which has significantly limited the impact of this disease. Commercial research facilities in space could accelerate the discovery of new lifesaving drugs for citizens around the world.
Witnessing the Full Potential of Space
Space is opening quickly and vastly, becoming accessible to more companies, individuals, and agencies than ever before. With governments no longer acting as the driver behind discovering, understanding, and reaching space, commercial entrepreneurs, investors, and businesses are fueling the potential of a vastly different, more commercially viable space. The by-product will be investments in solutions to systemic problems we face.
In the meantime, it is incumbent upon the commercial space community to educate the general consumer about the lucrative nature of space and how it has become an economic driver. It is also incumbent upon the space community to share its passion for space and its sound business models with the investment community. Doing so will secure the funding needed to move forward. These efforts are the pathway to space being a value to all of us.
Deborah Westphal is a leader in future-focused strategy. In her book Convergence, she leverages more than 30 years of experience helping the world’s most innovative business and government leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections. She delivers this rich insight with an empathetic and thought-provoking writing style to chart a path for readers. Throughout the book, personal stories and historical examples highlight convergences that span the globe, impacting everything from global supply chains to climate change, and reshaping the future of business, technology, and humanity everywhere.
Get your copy of Convergence here.