Opinion: A decade of commercial space travel – what’s next?
This article was written by author Joel Wooten, Assistant Professor of Management Science, University of South Carolina, and was first published on The Conversation. Read the original article here. The opinion of the authors does not necessarily correspond with that of the editorial team. Want your opinion to be featured on AeroTime? Send us a line at email@example.com.
In many industries, a decade is barely enough time to cause dramatic change unless something disruptive comes along – a new technology, business model or service design. The space industry has recently been enjoying all three.
But 10 years ago, none of those innovations were guaranteed. In fact, on Sept. 28, 2008, an entire company watched and hoped as their flagship product attempted a final launch after three failures. With cash running low, this was the last shot. Over 21,000 kilograms of kerosene and liquid oxygen ignited and powered two booster stages off the launchpad.
When that Falcon 1 rocket successfully reached orbit and the company secured a subsequent contract with NASA, SpaceX had survived its ‘startup dip’. That milestone – the first privately developed liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit – ignited a new space industry that is changing our world, on this planet and beyond. What has happened in the intervening years, and what does it mean going forward?
While scientists are busy developing new technologies that address the countless technical problems of space, there is another segment of researchers, including myself, studying the business angle and the operations issues facing this new industry. In a recent paper, my colleague Christopher Tang and I investigate the questions firms need to answer in order to create a sustainable space industry and make it possible for humans to establish extraterrestrial bases, mine asteroids and extend space travel – all while governments play an increasingly smaller role in funding space enterprises. We believe these business solutions may hold the less-glamorous key to unlocking the galaxy.
The new global space industry
When the Soviet Union launched their Sputnik program, putting a satellite in orbit in 1957, they kicked off a race to space fueled by international competition and Cold War fears. The Soviet Union and the United States played the primary roles, stringing together a series of “firsts” for the record books. The first chapter of the space race culminated with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic Apollo 11 moon landing which required massive public investment, on the order of US$25.4 billion, almost $200 billion in today’s dollars.
Competition characterized this early portion of space history. Eventually, that evolved into collaboration, with the International Space Station being a stellar example, as governments worked toward shared goals. Now, we’ve entered a new phase – openness – with private, commercial companies leading the way.
The industry for spacecraft and satellite launches is becoming more commercialized, due, in part, to shrinking government budgets. According to a report from the investment firm Space Angels, a record 120 venture capital firms invested over $3.9 billion in private space enterprises last year. The space industry is also becoming global, no longer dominated by the Cold War rivals, the United States and USSR.
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