Identifiable near-term space markets, part 1

Providence, RI, December 2009. By Joshua Gigantino, Creative Commons License.

Commercial space development through the early 21st Century has involved mostly large business working with government or multinational corporation to provide defense, communications or Earth-sensing (weather) satellites along with the launchers and ground infrastructure. While extensive, the existing space market is hampered from growth by large upfront costs and risk aversion. Private space development had seen limited successes through the 80’s and 90’s but nothing on the verge of what had been promised in the the Apollo era. In 2004 the Mojave, CA based aeronautics inventor Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites successfully won the XPrize by sending SpaceShipOne into a ballistic arc that crossed the 62 mile high threshold of space.

With the success of SpaceShipOne the traditional “giggle factor” of space diminished significantly. A new era of space development appeared imminent. New startups headed by engineers and wealthy Angel investors have come into being and made great strides. Regulatory uncertainty was removed with the creation of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transport or AST. With the rise of companies such as SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, Orbital Outfitters and others including ULA’s interest in commercial launch and a plethora of small-sat manufacturers, a new way of doing business in space has begun to dawn. Recent deals between Solaren and Pacific Gas & Electric show that there is a new way of doing business in space.

The next step is twofold for real success. First is convincing the public that space has real impacts on their lives beyond GPS and weather satellites. We need enthusiastic and educated people willing to do hard, exciting work, some of it in dangerous places. Second is we need many new companies and institutes to form to push the boundaries outwards with new space applications, products and destinations. The goal should be 1,000,000 new aerospace jobs (I didn’t make the video but definitely support the message). Growing an industry intent on providing energy, entertainment, feedstocks and colonization solutions will spur new wealth creation here on Earth. It can create a 4th Industrial Revolution.

The environmental technologies needed to colonize space will directly help Earth’s ecology. Space based Solar Power Satellites (SPS) will have the next great impact on how we live on Earth and the Earth itself. Once we can build 1 SPS we can build 1000 and begin to seriously consider not needing fossil fuels for power. Commercial SPS will create novel opportunities for powering new spacecraft and systems.

Suborbital space tourism and research flights will be commonly available in the coming few years from Virgin Galactic or XCOR. Orbital tourism, while expensive, has been available for nearly a decade. These are fairly known but potentially elastic markets especially with a reliable craft. Space Adventures has provided an exciting 6-month training, 10 day flight time orbital Space Flight Participant program profitably for a decade. Scaled and Virgin Galactic are flight-testing their SpaceShipTwo designs now.

With commercially available building blocks of space components, an enterprise will be able to put together complete space systems from communication satellite clusters to new space station in exotic locations. Bigelow Aerospace will have commercially available station modules available in the coming years. Organize, purchase a BA-330 and SunDancer, fly them on ULA or SpaceX rockets and start your own space station – hotel, casino, research or exploration basecamp. A space station will still be a capital project but they will be available in quantity, soon, placed in the orbital slot or interplanetary transfer orbit of your choice. On a smaller scale, today you can buy a CubeSat, an open-source 1-kg satellite, and fly it for $40,000. Planetary landers and crewed tugs are available with little more than a phone call and the money. These components are becoming readily available to mid-size and smaller organizations.

Elements in this nascent ecosystem can be readily combined to exploit new economic niches. With the components described above and others combined with enough money in the next decade will enable interests to place outpost anywhere in the Inner Solar System. Enablers such as small flight-ready nuclear plants or VASIMR style engines can have an amplifying effect but just Bigelow modules plus commercial launch can put significant numbers of people in space, doing all sorts of things, within a decade. Space will cease to be a place of missions or data transmission and become destinations, ports of call, outposts, basecamps to go further.

Part 2 will cover some specific next-generation niches and space applications.

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