Making money in space
Startups get bullish on space as earth’s finite resources dwindle.
Efforts to develop a profitable space economy are evolving as leaders from government and industry become serious about establishing living quarters on the moon. The motivations stem from earth’s limited capacity to support more residents (a UN study forecasts 8.6 billion people by 2030 and 11.2 billion by 2100).
“When we have reached similar crises there has usually been somewhere else to colonize. But, there is no new world, no utopia around the corner. We are running out of space and the only place we can go to are other worlds.”
— Stephen Hawking
Hawking’s assertion makes the space economy’s business case more attractive as efforts to harness cosmic resources to mitigate Earth’s scarcities show promise. There’s also the question of urgency, something space startups are quick to point out in their investor pitches:
> Excessive population will surely stimulate more airborne illnesses such as COVID-19. Moreover, 3.4 million people die annually from contaminated-water-related disease, which will only worsen with population growth.
> According to a 10-year NASA study, more than half the world’s largest aquifers spanning India, China, the US and France — are removing water faster than it’s being replaced. Climate change and desertification only exacerbate the situation.
> One in eight people around the world suffer from hunger and malnutrition and job growth is already struggling to keep pace with surges in population.
Solving earth’s problems with celestial resources isn’t as far-out as we think.
Previous investments in space exploration have delivered impressive benefits for earthlings — from solar panels, scratch-resistant lenses, and implantable heart monitors to innovations in cancer therapy, lightweight materials — even shock absorbers for buildings.
Other investments in robotics, commercial space flight, medical technology and manufacturing continue to deliver a stream of new learnings. For example, satellite operators stand to save millions by mining moon resources to service their equipment (versus today’s practice of disposing and replacing expensive instrumentation). As a result, customers of Dish Network, DIRECTV, satellite radio and broadband internet providers could see a reduction in their monthly invoices as both service quality and capacity increase.
On the consumer front, the FMCG Industry (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) will seize enormous opportunities to re-engineer deodorant, soap, skincare, and food products for consumption in space.
In turn, retailers will build kits of food and hygiene items — optimized for space dwellers and travelers. Waste management providers will be called upon to clear and recycle millions of pieces of debris already swirling around space (waste also threatens satellite safety).
The transportation industry, critical to any new economic development, will exploit new markets.
Since the dawn of civilization, mankind’s search for wealth has been dependent on travel and logistics. The space era is no different, as investments aggressively fund the development of efficient reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) capable of placing large payloads into orbit.
Today, NASA relies on Cygnus spacecraft from Northrop Grumman and SpaceX Dragon to deliver crew supplies to the ISS (International Space Station), while bringing back cargo and disposing of garbage. Now, organizations such as SpaceX are creating even newer RLV designs.
Reuse achieved another major milestone on May 30, 2020 when NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley boarded SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, lifting off on a partially reusable Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket at 3:22:45 p.m. EDT (1922:45 GMT) for an extended stay at the space station.
As Michio Kaku, physics professor at City College of New York told Chris Jansing of MSNBC: “Today, sending you into orbit would cost $10,000 per pound; that’s how expensive it is. But, once booster rockets become reusable even small nations will have access to outer space.”
Kaku also noted how the coronavirus has inflated nationalist passions and border conflicts around the world, adding “the symbol of the International Space Station is peaceful exploration of space and opening up the heavens for everybody. Reuse will drive costs down of space travel, increase international cooperation and literally, open up the heavens.”
Elon Musk’s goal is lower the cost and bolster the reliability of space access saying: “I believe $500 per pound or less is very achievable.
A new venue for tourism and real estate emerges.
Executives at Virginia’s Space Adventures will soon let passengers come within 62 miles of the moon’s surface wowing them images of the Earth rising above the lunar surface. Space Adventures has transported space travelers before, arranging private flights to the International Space Station on Soyuz spacecraft (until such trips ceased when Soyuz missions became used only for transporting crews).
Space Adventures is the only private space company to have sent private citizens to space and may soon offer seats for orbital flights on a Boeing rocket. Elon Musk, in a move to combine travel, tourism and real estate — plans to build a city of 1 million people on Mars by 2050 (supported by his SpaceX division which plans to build 1,000 fully reusable spaceships from its Texas factory over the next decade).
China’s National Space Administration and Europe’s Space Agency are also working together to build a “Moon Village” within the next ten years. As part of the this initiative, the European Space Agency is experimenting with lunar soil to 3D-print protective walls, designed to mitigate radiation from micro-meteors. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin also has ambitions to settle humans on the moon (with its NASA alliance).
Earth offers a beta test site for space life.
Biosphere 2, a large-scale housing apparatus built with multidisciplinary scientists — sought to create a balanced and self-sustaining replica of Earth’s ecosystem (named Biosphere2 because Earth is Biosphere1). Though fraught with problems, many learnings were harvested including a big spotlight on the need for psychological maintenance.
Armed with Biosphere2 learnings a team of scientists lived in a 1,000 square foot dome in Hawaii designed to simulate life on Mars. The site was chosen for its rugged, Mars-like landscape, on a rocky, red plain below the summit of an active volcano.
Known as Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS, participants wore NASA space suits when venturing outside (just like astronauts).
Claustrophobia was mitigated by a duplex design with six-meter high ceilings. As a result of this initiative’s findings, NASA announced its intent to send humans to an asteroid in the 2020s and Mars by the 2030s.
Telemedicine, which provides care for patients either unable to travel to a medical office due to health concerns or to sheer distance, is experiencing a bump due to the COVID-19 crisis. Telemedicine is particularly useful for information exchange and medical visits. For example patients easily use their phones to take and send photographs of skin rashes.
Telemedicine is also pioneering virtual diagnostic procedures over video. Labs and tests can also be done from home, a practice that will ease traffic bottlenecks at crowded doctor’s offices.
Learnings from telemedicine will inform healthcare delivery in space. In one of NASA’s recent podcasts, hosts described how astronauts traveling deeper into space would receive medical care. For example, phones and smartwatches will quickly become similar to the “scanner” used by Star Trek’s physicians to transmit vital signs such as blood pressure, red and white blood cell count, BMI, and temperature.
Humanoids and space survival.
We’ve already proven humans can survive in space, but in ad hoc, short-term situations made possible by the controlled environments of rockets and space stations. For example, although U.S. astronaut Christina Koch just spent a record 328 consecutive days in space (the longest spaceflight for a woman) her impressive feat lasted just under one year.
Longer-term survival will require an entirely different approach, aided by an integration of man and machine — to create humanoids.
Before you flinch, realize this isn’t exactly new. Human-machine augmentation as a space survival strategy has been in the works for years, albeit for different motives.
Hearing aids, hip and knee replacements, pacemakers, and laser eye surgery overcome functional human constraints stemming from injury, age or genetics. Brain-embedded computer chips are being used to treat Parkinson’s disease and depression. In space, similar chips will track and monitor humans to assure they don’t get lost or left in medical danger. The artificial heart (a prosthetic device that replaces its biological counterpart), could lead to other organ replacements designed to be compatible for the harsh conditions of space.
Separate machine companions, namely robots, will be deployed as entire space workforces or as specialists. This is already happening. NASA robots for example, offer an astronaut substitute to conducting repairs where radiation or other micrometeorite risks exist. The space agency’s Robonaut initiative is developing humanoids designed to exceed the dexterity of suited astronauts. Its first space humanoid, known as R2 has already gone to work at the International Space Station and will eventually venture into the larger vacuum of space.
Unlike Silicon Valley’s “winner take all” model, the space economy will require ecosystems of players with the type of broad, deep reservoirs of talent and resources necessary to build a long-term, profitable space presence.
As new space entrepreneurs lead the way, NASA will evolve from a leadership role to that of government oversight, financing and the provision of entrepreneurial incentives along with appropriate, unobtrusive regulation. This might start with an update of the UN’s 1967 Outer Space Treaty and its Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).
A tighter alliance between entrepreneurs and space agencies will evolve.
According to Bryce Space and Technology, a Virginia-based analysis and engineering firm, government and industry invested $360 billion in 2018 alone as space entrepreneurs filled the void left from government cuts. By some estimates, the space industry could represent $1 trillion by 2040.
In the short term, we’ll see more commercial space travel experiences designed for wealthy consumers by 2025. Robotic 3D printers will be common in space-related manufacturing and operations.
And by 2030, it’s highly likely at least one private enterprise, in partnership with its own government or international alliance of governments, will establish living quarters on earth’s moon. But even with this movement, the requisite technology for supporting a large human presence in space won’t happen without dedicated effort to manage a price tag, that at present, might feel insurmountable.
Both challenges however, can be mitigated with the inherent advantages of space itself, namely activities such as asteroid mining and space solar power. And as history as shown, once new developments begin, other innovations occur, many by accident (e.g, memory foam, freeze-dried food, firefighting equipment, emergency space blankets, even DustBusters, CAT scans and Nike Air athletic shoes). Continuing advances in machine-aided humans and robots will also pave the way for living and working in outer space.
Many argue that investments should flow toward solving earthy problems versus investing in opportunities space. But, given continued, rapid diminishment of our finite resources, outer space may be one of our most attractive options for sustaining the human race.
Richard Fouts helps business leaders craft their organization’s unique value proposition, elevator pitch, and brand messages using proven storytelling techniques. His methods have helped dozens of organization’s brand their company in half the time (and cost) as traditional brand methods.
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