Space is no longer just for governments. In just a few decades, it has gone from a tool of the Cold War to a field where private companies are blossoming and new applications are developed with fierce pace.
In the past 15 years we’ve seen the first space tourist blast off, witnessed the rise of cult space corporation SpaceX and heard the plans of a wealth of different companies, from would-be asteroid miners to space habitat construction companies. We may not have let Earth yet ourselves, but private endeavours have – rather ironically – given us a collective sense of ownership of space perhaps not felt since the 70s.
“There’s a growing notion that people can use space themselves as an individual. They may not go into space themselves personally, but they can on their cellphone call down a satellite image that Google has acquired; they can call upon the capabilities of space, particularly of commercial companies in space, to do something in their life that they couldn’t do otherwise,” says James Muncy, space policy consultant, entrepreneur and principle of space policy consultancy PoliSpace.
“It’s almost like a democratisation of space, where space is really coming down to the average person and the average person is getting some degree of access to space that used to only be in the hands of government leaders.”
But this is just the start. Commercial access to space is slowly increasing, and what that could mean for humanity is only just starting to become clear.
Removing the bottleneck
Not so long ago, NASA and other governmental agencies held the keys to space, and to everyone else, save for the lucky few, were left dreaming.
“A lot of us grew up doing the Apollo program and thought that, well the government is doing this but then the private sector is going to follow,” says Muncy. “Well the private sector didn’t follow: the government set up a shuttle program and the government operated its own airline into space for 30 years with the Space Shuttle. And as long as the government was doing that no one was going to go and privately invest to develop their own way of doing it.
“In some ways we postponed the emergence of this new commercial frontier and in some ways we’ve just been too optimistic about it in terms of how long it would take to happen.”
But things have changed. Policy has been altered, and, perhaps more importantly, NASA no longer has the money to undertake projects like the Space Shuttle.
In some ways we postponed the emergence of this new commercial frontier and in some ways we’ve just been too optimistic about it in terms of how long it would take to happen
“It’s all about budgets,” explains NASA astronaut James F Reilly, who flew into space with the agency three times between 1998 and 2007. “When I went into the program we had a budget of $32bn, which funded all of our research and all of our spacecraft that we were building. The budget got cut right as I arrived there in 1995 from $32bn to $25bn. Just a few years later it was cut to about $18.5bn.”
As much as this has been a disappointment for NASA, it has enabled commercial companies to fill the void, working both for NASA and for other private companies. As a result, new, refined technologies have emerged, from more sophisticated spacecraft to tiny satellites known as cubesats.
This has led to a situation where relatively small organisations can, for example, rent time on newly developed commercial spaceplanes, allowing them to realise both commercial and scientific projects not previously possible either due to access or cost.
This is certainly true for the Atsa Suborbital Observatory, a human-operated telescope developed at South Carolina military university The Citadel, attached to the roof of a Lynx Mark II spacecraft owned and operated by commercial space company XCOR. Scheduled for launch next year, it will enable researchers to look at parts of space close to the Sun that cannot be fully observed from Earth but are too dangerous to observe using equipment such as Hubble due to the risk of burning out the $20bn cameras.
“What the commercial suborbital industry is doing is taking what has been previously a reasonably expensive proposition – about a million or two dollars to get a telescope into space – and they’ve brought our costs way down so now we’re talking about more like $100,000 a flight rather than a million,” says Dr Luke Sollitt, assistant professor of Physics at The Citadel, who is in charge of the Atsa project.
“So now you no longer have to have a massive lab behind you to build your instrument, integrate it and so forth, you can now do it with a much smaller team, you can do it with students, you can do it at even small undergraduate institutions.”
But while the commercial space industry’s rise has been remarkable, there are still some governmental issues that, at least in the US, are holding it back. Every single satellite that has the capability to take pictures of Earth, whether the organisation behind it plans to do so or not, is required to get a licence from the government.
It’s a hangover from an era when satellites were seen as intelligence tools, and was set up with the assumption that only a small number of applications would be submitted, but things have changed.
“College physics departments are doing this themselves,” says Muncy. “The government isn’t set up to do hundreds of licence applications, but they’re getting hundreds of licence applications – they are literally getting overwhelmed.”
This has resulted in applications taking a year, which represents a serious bottleneck for businesses.
“People don’t start a company and say ‘I’d like to put my machine where it needs to go to make money in a year’. They want to launch it as soon as it works,” says Muncy.
“So the notion that they would have to wait a year for the government to give them permission to even launch their satellite, so they can go collect the data and provide it to their customers, that’s like telling companies ‘no you can’t grow; no you can’t go create new products and services; you can’t hire more people and you can’t grow the economy because we can’t keep up with you’. That sounds like the Soviet Union. It doesn’t sound American!”
Muncy, who lobbies the US government on behalf of the commercial space industry, says things are slowly changing, but the industry itself needs to represent itself fairly to aid this.
“Governments are slow and they’re trying to figure out how to adapt, and industry has in the past sometimes overhyped how quickly things are going to happen,” he says.
Opening space up to commercial companies has led to significant technological advances, as new people find new ways to achieve things that would never have been required on a government project.
Miniaturised satellites, as well as SpaceX’s reusable spacecraft, are products of this change, but there are many more on the horizon. For example, Sollitt regards the technology on XCOR’s Lynx spaceplane to be a prime example.
“What’s really driving the current revolution in suborbital vehicles is revolutionary new pumps that XCOR built,” he says. “They have these proprietary pumps that are not turbo pumps, they’re great: they’re powering a much, much cheaper engine which is what makes their plane possible, and it’s very, very high reliability. I liken that to the case of Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1903; they had a couple of different innovations that made powered flight possible, but the big one which is the unsung hero is the engine.”
Cheaper launches are also paving the way for more rapid iteration of designs, which has had a major impact on how space-bound technology has progressed. Among the companies taking this approach is Planet Labs, which launches small satellites for Earth imaging.
“Every time they launch a series of satellites they change the hardware. In other words they keep innovating and improving their hardware organically; they don’t develop one thing and just make that and then change it a few years later,” says Muncy.
“They’ve gone through multiple generations of satellites, launching them in sequence, some on regular launch vehicles and frequently via the International Space Station. And by having more plentiful access to space, partly by using Nanoracks, which is the company that launches satellites from the space station, they’re able to dramatically improve their technology rapidly.”
While technology is clearly a very important part of how we grow our presence in space, the ideas that drive these advances are also of vital significance. Instead of projects being planned and overseen by a handful of people, the masses are now able to consider ways to utilise space, and that is ultimately leading to new ideas.
When only a few governments are doing things in space, that’s not the recipe for the most creativity
“When only a few governments are doing things in space, that’s not the recipe for the most creativity and trial and error of lots of ideas, but when millions of people are doing something they will figure out beneficial things that they can do,” says Muncy.
“It will be some crackpot or some entrepreneur or some visionary who figures out some really wild thing you can do in space that no one thought of before that dramatically helps people’s lives and therefore people are willing to pay for it.”
It’s not just ideas that are widening in scope. The commercialisation of space has so far brought us a wealth of satellites and sensors, but within a year or two it will begin to bring us something more – a dramatic growth in the number of astronauts. And many of them will be very different from those that have gone before.
“Up until now it’s been about 550 people throughout the history of spaceflight who have gone to space,” says Sollitt.
But with the launch of private, regularly run spacecraft with human payloads, such as those operated by XCOR and Virgin Galactic, this is set to expand significantly.
“I think that in the first year or two of full operations, it will probably be that many per year,” adds Sollitt.
“If Virgin Galactic is the first one to go, they’re going to be taking eight people up at a time, six of them will be new every time and they’re going to be launching every day. It could be many hundreds very quickly.
“XCOR has signed contracts with some places we would not really consider to be space-faring countries, like South Korea, or Malaysia. So they’re going to be flying astronauts from all sorts of interesting new places that have never flown before.”
One of the goals of my project is to get the world’s first student astronaut to fly in space
Not only will the number of space-faring nations increase, but so too will the types of people who can call themselves astronauts. When it finally launches, Virgin Galactic will be ferrying a mixture of celebrities, scientists and wealthy business types, but space projects such as Sollitt’s are also enabling people to go based on their research focus, rather than their bank balance.
“One of the goals of my project is to get the world’s first student astronaut to fly in space,” says Sollitt. “And I think that if we are successful, if we can get that, I think you will see a revolution in how people view spaceflight. And then I think it will become a big deal nationwide, worldwide for institutions to start sending students into space.
“What do you think that’s going to do to the viability of STEM disciplines in terms of what students are thinking if they can, as budding students of space science, actually participate in space research as builders, as fliers? This is a very different kind of getting involved with space research than has ever been possible.”
Value in space
While the unending scientific value of space is clear, if our only motives were a desire for knowledge, commercial involvement in space would always remain limited.
“I used to be a wide-eyed student many years ago and think that all we had to do up in space was science, and it was going to be very sterile and Star Trek-like, but that’s not how it happens,” says Sollitt.
“The reason we got somewhere is because there’s a reason to go, there’s something we can get out of it. The reason that the New World was explored is because there were assets that people thought could be exploited in the New World.
“Columbus was looking for gold, he was looking for an economic return, and I think that we will only truly become a space-faring species when we have an economic reason to go to space, when it becomes economically viable, or beneficial, to go to space. Otherwise, why are you doing it?”
We will only truly become a space-faring species when we have an economic reason to go to space
The precise nature of this is value is still being determined; it’s certainly going to be more than one thing, and companies are scrambling to establish markets in a diverse mix of areas, some of which are better known to the public than others.
“Ten years ago I would have said tourism,” says Sollitt. “Nowadays given the kind of problems these companies are running into, it may still be tourism, certainly on the suborbital side.
“What’s going to make space more commercially viable apart from tourism? Now resource extraction – if you can find resources that are worth getting.”
Planetary Resources is leading the way in this area, focusing on asteroid mining to extract everything from rare metals to chemicals for rocket fuel, but there is also talk of extracting resources from the Moon. Yet these are projects that will take considerable time to come to fruition.
In the nearer term, manufacturing in space may prove to be immensely valuable, because of the unique environment that zero-gravity provides.
“There are things that if we could mix materials here on the ground and have them stay mixed instead of separated because of gravity, then we would have processors that would be a lot faster than we’re using today,” explains Reilly.
“One of the applications people were talking about is simply making satellites at the Space Station itself,” adds Muncy. “Basically what you do is you launch a bunch of standard components and a company says I want a satellite and I can live with it being launched to the rough orbit and the rough inclination of the Space Station, but I want the satellite in a month.”
This would be impossible to achieve if the satellite was constructed on the ground, largely because of the lengthy approval process to launch, but up in space it could be done.
“Now then what you’re doing is you’re creating value for the human being in space that’s up there. In other words they’re now making money by making a satellite, putting together pieces that are being 3D laser printed and other standard components that are already launched up there. And they’re assembling them into a satellite and then loading it into an airlock to be ejected from the Space Station and basically ‘launched’ already in space.
“Now you’ve created a market beyond tourism for putting people in space.”
But that’s just the start. Far more people want to do research in space that is possible with the ISS astronaut’s tight schedules, so there is considerable market potential for private research to be undertaken.
“Are there people that would like a not-scheduled, a rare few moments for a NASA astronaut to do their scientific experiment? Would they like to launch their own employee who actually is a researcher in the field of interest, who actually knows how to do the research, who doesn’t have to be trained and can recognise physical phenomena and understand what they mean, because they’re an expert?” asks Muncy. “Then you’ve got a market for people going up not just for six months at a time but maybe for a month at a time, so now you need more flights to and from the space station.
“So you now begin to have the normal sorts of improvements in the economy where you get more services, a need for greater, more frequent transportation to and from the space station, maybe you have the need for a private space station in addition to the government space station, maybe over time the government transitions from operating a space station to being simply a tenant in a private space station, which is how we do things in the normal economy.”
This private space station may seem like a far-out concept, but the beginnings of such a project are already starting to emerge. Bigelow Aerospace, which makes lightweight expandable space habitats, will be installing an expandable module on the International Space Station later this year, and recently agreed a contract with NASA to launch and deploy a 330 cubic meter independent habitat in low-Earth orbit.
The plan is for NASA to use the technology on missions beyond low-Earth orbit, but the low cost and compact nature of the habitat means Bigelow is also touted the system as an affordable solution for commercial companies.
In time, this technology could be used to establish a number of private space stations, and we could even see supporting industries cropping up in space to provide everything from home comforts to entertainment for contractors in long-term deployments.
Finding further reasons to be in space will ultimately have a significant impact on when and if we truly colonise it, thus making the private space industry an important part of this dream.
“People that tell me they want to live in space, I ask them if they’d like to live on Antarctica, and they all tell me the same thing: no,” said Sollitt. “And then I point out to them that space is much, much harder to deal with and much, much more expensive than going to Antarctica, and yet there’s a whole lot of nothing to do in both places unless you’re a certain kind of scientist.
“So we need something to do when we go there, and that’s the economic benefit, the economic viability.”
Of course, reducing cost is also an important factor, and this is an area where the commercial space industry can certainly contribute.
“I don’t know why people will want to go to space, but they will if it becomes cheap enough for them to go to space, to live there,” says Muncy.
“You know, Silicon Valley is too crowded and they’d like to go invent something somewhere else. Who knows? Only so many people can live in the general environment of London, so they want to go someplace else.”
For the first time we’ll be expanding into new lands and new worlds and we won’t be taking it away from anyone else
In this sense, space may eventually play the role of the New World, offering new opportunities for pioneers, and that’s not something that, according the Muncy, the government will be able to contribute much to.
“Governments aren’t really good at organising huge long-term sustained efforts and getting people to do things,” he says. “We’re not naturally really great at organisation as a society, but we’re great at having thousands or millions of individual families or individuals, in their own random collective way, go pursue opportunities that don’t exist where they are now.
“The history of humankind, it hasn’t always been without faults because sometimes people from Western civilization moved into a new place and there were already people there. But we don’t think there’s anyone on the Moon, we don’t think there’s anyone on Mars, so for the first time we’ll be expanding into new lands and new worlds and we won’t be taking it away from anyone else.”
Of course while the beginnings of expansion of commercial space are around for us to see and extrapolate from, there is much about what will happen in the future that we cannot possibly know.
“The great scientist Arthur C Clarke liked to say that if you were a fish and you were evolving to become an amphibian to come out on land, and you knew that you wouldn’t be inside water anymore – you’d be in air – you might imagine how you would go about doing some of the things you did in the water on the land.
“But you would never have thought of fire, because that’s foreign to the water.”