The burgeoning space economy
By Ben Iannotta|January 2020
The fresh determination by NASA and a host of startups to build products in space could require rethinking our standard nomenclature about matters of space.
Consider the term “space economy.” In the traditional sense, the U.S. and other space-faring nations have nurtured a vibrant economy for decades. Governments commission construction of satellites and hire companies to launch them. The “new space” companies, which aren’t so new anymore, build satellites and rockets to their liking, and governments can choose to become customers or not. There are bustling markets for a host of products and services, including communications bandwidth through orbit; weather forecasting data; banking and mapping software and apps derived from the timing and navigation signals of GPS and similar constellations; and images from privately owned imaging constellations. All this government spending and private-sector revenue added up to $360 billion globally in 2018, according to Bryce Space and Technology, a Virginia-based analysis and engineering firm.
To give you a gauge, that’s about half of the annual U.S. defense budget. That’s a lot of money, but there’s room for growth, and the meaning of the term “space economy” needs to expand to match. For a small band of entrepreneurs, the term now refers to a whole set of aspirations ranging from the bold to the fantastic. Bold would be making a product in space and returning it to Earth in high enough volume that revenues from sales exceed the sizable costs of getting materials to space, making a product and delivering it to customers on Earth. Our cover story takes a deep look at one promising possibility, a fiber optic product that can’t be made in high quality on Earth due to gravity but whose zero-gravity version should outperform conventional fibers.
On the fantastic front is the idea of gathering natural resources in space and making products out of them for customers away from Earth. The best of those who are working toward such fantastic goals are careful not to overstate matters. The sizable technical challenges ahead need to be embraced and conquered. As Justin Kugler of the Silicon Valley company Made In Space puts it: The space economy will “eventually include building satellites and vehicles in space that never touch the ground, but we’re a ways yet from that!”
The route to the fantastic must run through the bold.
All this brings to mind another term: space exploration. Without a doubt, there’s still plenty of exploration to be done by humans and by robotic probes in space, but humanity seems to be pushing to make the transition from pure exploration (call it the Lewis and Clark phase) to exploration plus economy building.