Building the Space Economy
By Heather Bulk|October 2019
A Marriage of Technology and Business
The world is finally excited about space again. Companies are building lunar landers to return to the moon, we are preparing to watch humans be launched to the International Space Station on commercial vehicles from the United States, and you can soon buy a tourist ticket to low Earth orbit. Add the Artemis program that will launch and land the first woman on the moon and it creates quite a Sci-fi story. Not since the glory days of the Apollo program has the passion for space been greater than it is today. But a key element to retaining this spark of enthusiasm is to create and retain a strong space economy, something that keeps us all coming back.
Some credit for this resurgence in a desire to “Boldly go where no man, or woman, has gone before” belongs to Blue Origin, Space X, Virgin Galactic, and other commercial entities whose business models are built on escaping the Earth’s gravity, both as government partners and on their own. Sure, some of these new endeavors are co-funded by billionaires, and the enthusiasm is part of the marketing plan, but the magic of these programs is that the development is no longer solely limited to government agencies like NASA and DoD; today the space industry is accessible to all. New entrants, new ideas, stable investment-funding sources, and strong business models are what we need for a strong space economy.
Space is a business now, and this means success will be judged on its profitability, even for people like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, or legacy aerospace companies. All of them need to see returns on their investments for the money to keep flowing into the engineering and construction of new rockets, mining probes, landers, and moon bases.
In the near term, we’ll see a continuation of private companies working with the public sector to provide services once dominated by government entities, such as building, launching and deploying satellites, and delivering cargo and crew to the International Space Station. Within a year or two, however, space tourists will pay big money to orbit the Earth in private spacecraft, potentially have science services on the moon and true space-based global Internet. And farther into the future, satellite probes will attempt to mine and return the rich mineral resources on asteroids and possibly other planets.
However, two very large, yet manageable, obstacles stand in the way of a sustainable space economy.
The first and biggest is ensuring there are strong business models and continual demand for products and services in space. We need to have long-term buyers of technologies and services well beyond the development phases of programs, and not solely dependent on government funding. The industry needs recurring consumers. If people don’t want to buy what we are providing, there is no business case. This critical obstacle is overcome by engineers and business people working in tandem to ensure the efforts are coordinated and have an actual business case that closes.
AIAA and its members can play a big role in this future space economy. Starting with a strong level of engagement beyond the technical realm, AIAA can educate its members through engaging events such as ASCEND. Interactive, live events like this bring together critical players and discussions on multiple levels. The stimulation of thought and conversation around a sustainable space economy and market demand, as well as technical challenges, are a core platform to move our industry forward.
The second challenge here in the United States is our workforce. We do not currently have enough people sufficiently trained in engineering and other disciplines critical to success in space. Fortunately, a crucial first step in training a 21st-century space workforce has already begun. STEM programs are being run in elementary, junior high, and high schools to put more young people on trajectories to study math, science, engineering, and computers in college.
We must harness the excitement we now experience about space and instill it in students by initiating internships, ensuring strong mentoring programs, and creating partnerships with academia. And we need to get more involved in shaping the academic curricula at our colleges and universities. Our goal should be to train engineers who understand business and business people who understand engineering. This is the 21st-century space workforce our industry needs to achieve technical and financial sustainability. ★