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The Space Industry Is Getting Down to Business

Over the last decade, the space ecosystem has been evolving, increasingly exploring ways to create an economic sphere driven by the private sector. Space exploration was initially the provenance of governments — the only entities that could afford complex, risky endeavors that had no basis in profit generation. Today, a survey of the space ecosystem shows all types of new companies, from small two-person ventures to large corporations, pursuing many different business concepts. In addition, companies that have engaged in space activities for decades are rethinking and adjusting their approaches in the context of the changes taking place.

What is driving this dynamic? Fifty years of human engagement in space has created a foundational body of knowledge about building machines to survive uniquely harsh conditions, support humans and operate in a remote and challenging environment. This broad experience base, now accessible to everyone across the globe, combined with incredible advancements in computing, electronics, materials and other technologies, has lowered the barriers to entry for engaging in space business. One particularly important development has been the emergence of smaller satellites, resulting in a surge of startup satellite companies and new investment. 

While space exploration is still risky and relatively expensive, the investment profile has shifted to allow the establishment of startups with less capital (millions, not billions) that seek success through business-driven innovation as well as technology. Space businesses today face familiar issues for any sector: markets, demand, business plans, investment and regulations. 

Some new space entrants are well-known, backed by billionaires inspired by the Apollo program: Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX. Surrounding these companies are hundreds of small startups, founded by space veterans and college students, eager to engage in space. Many are focused on exploiting the technology of cubesats and smallsats and some are interested in robotic servicing. Others are tackling the challenging task of human spaceflight, either by providing vehicles or platforms for private space farers to visit or do business. Ideas abound and the industry is teeming with energy and investment. 

The Number of Startup Space Companies Is Growing Rapidly

Much of the emerging activity is centered in the United States, an ecosystem that was fostered by U.S. policy decisions in the mid-2000s, but the rest of the globe is following close behind. Entrepreneurial activity is flourishing in many places globally, including China, where the concept of “commercial” may not be quite consistent with a U.S. definition. 

Active announced and funded start-up space companies

Source: Bryce Space and Technology

The momentum to expand the space-based economy has challenged both national governments and international bodies to resolve new and complex issues, including: identifying appropriate regulations and standards, establishing liability and applicable tenets of space law, defining rules of conduct on orbit for both people and machines and the integration of air and space traffic into a manageable global system. Companies interested in engaging in space also must grapple with how to develop appropriate business plans and secure funding while understanding the dynamics of supply and demand in a frontier environment. It is commonplace that venture investment and a rapid startup pace result in a high proportion of failed businesses as well as dynamic successes. To complicate matters even further, all of the above issues are interwoven and cannot readily be addressed in isolation.

The $360 Billion Global Space Economy

Source: Bryce Space and Technology

Space has attracted an astounding amount of creative energy over the last decade. Hundreds of new investors have entered the space ecosystem, proposing space hotels, human transportation systems, human-tended laboratories, in-space manufacturing, energy harvesting, asteroid mining, fueling depots, Earth imagery, small satellite constellation-based internet services and the list goes on.

Investors in start-up space companies (companies with angel or venture funding at some point in their history)

Accompanying the proposals is a separate but related collection of companies created to offer services from communication technologies, sensor platforms, training programs, propulsion technologies, specialized launch services and so on — another huge grouping of entrepreneurial activity. Long-standing space companies are also innovating, leveraging years of experience and extraordinary R&D expertise to take advantage of the broad interest that has erupted around space. Clearly not every project or idea will be successful; space exploration is hard, both technologically and financially. In the face of challenges, the momentum of human expansion is taking us into this new frontier — and so we will go. 

Countries Around the World Are Building Government and Commercial Spaceports

How can we manage the evolution of such a diverse, dynamic ecosystem of space participants to achieve our collective goals? In addition to the traditional space community of engineers, scientists, technicians and government agents, we must add lawyers, entrepreneurs, investors of all stripes, insurance companies, standards organizations, university professors and their students, small businesses, artists and entertainers, just to name a few. In the past, the space industry has been accused of “talking to itself”; now, we have to learn how to reach out and engage with a much more diverse community with many different agendas, concerns and motivations. Complicating the situation is the fact that the transition discussed here is taking place globally. The need for constant communication and open discourse becomes vital. 

The time is ripe for a platform that convenes the entire global ecosystem, not just the traditional aerospace industry, to facilitate the necessary conversations, target outcomes and track the resolution of critical issues. Working together, coherently as a broad community of interest in space, we can succeed.

Carissa Christensen

CEO of Bryce Space and Technology

Carissa Christensen has founded/co-founded multiple technology companies, including Bryce Space and Technology, QxBranch (quantum computing) and The Tauri Group (national defense). She is an internationally recognized expert in the interplay of government, military and commercial activities in the aerospace sector and advises federal agencies and senior decision makers. Ms. Christensen is a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Dr. Sandra Magnus

Former Astronaut for NASA

Dr. Sandra Magnus is the deputy director for engineering within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering and is a Guiding Coalition Member of ASCEND. She was formerly the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She served in the NASA Astronaut Corps, where her missions included STS-135, the final Shuttle flight. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. 

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