There is a revolution taking place in spaceflight. Where once journeys to the cosmos were the reserve of national agencies, with the full force of government funding behind them, a boom in the private space sector is quickly becoming apparent.
But it is not just headline-grabbing names like SpaceX and Blue Origin you should care about. Hundreds of companies are now vying for a piece of an already lucrative pie valued at over $300 billion (£200 billion) – and others are keen to get in on the action, in a development not wholly dissimilar to the dot-com boom at the turn of the millennium, although hopefully with fewer financial casualties.
In mid-November in Houston, Texas, more than 100 companies from 23 countries gathered at the inaugural SpaceCom Expo, a new annual conference designed to stoke the fires of the private space industry with displays and talks from some of the biggest names in the sector including NASA, Virgin Galactic, and Boeing.
We’ve seen a few false dawns in the private space industry before, but there’s every reason to think that now the time is right. And it could finally take us into the era of humanity as a true space-faring species we've been promised for so long.
The SpaceCom Expo drew some of the biggest names in space. Jonathan O'Callaghan/IFLScience
The Real Deal
SpaceCom drew investment-seeking consortiums from Japan, Italy, and the U.K., keen to show off some of the exciting developments in their respective countries. For the latter, seven promising start-ups were taken to show off their ideas to the U.S. market as part of Space Mission U.K., and while names like Terrabotics and Gyana won't instantly instill a whole lot of excitement, the work they are doing should have even the tamest of minds intrigued. You can read more about these companies in Part 2 of this feature.
For Tim Just, Head of Space at Innovate UK who led Space Mission U.K., he says that an increase in private funding has seen a huge rise in the space industry. “There is a boom in start-up space companies,” he said. “What’s really different is something the U.K. is all too aware of – cuts in public funding. Private finance is coming into play.”
The opportunities available are backed up by the figures. In 2013, it’s estimated that $314.2 billion (£208.6 billion) was made in “global space activity,” which includes all revenues from both commercial and governmental space-related ventures. There are more than 30 spaceports in development around the world across five continents, including the newly announced Houston Spaceport. And global revenues from 23 commercial launches in 2014 were estimated at $2.4 billion (£1.6 billion), an increase of $500 million (£330 million) from the previous year.
The Space Mission U.K. group. Ollie Graham, Thought TV
“I think there’s going to be an explosion of companies now,” James Causey, executive director for SpaceCom, told IFLScience. “Because people are going to be missing out on business opportunities, and the moment that happens, guess what? They want to get involved. So that recognition is going to start to percolate around the world pretty darn quickly.”
It has become somewhat of a scramble to be early on the scene, with the privatization of satellites, spacecraft, and even science quickly taking place. And if you think that sounds unnerving, don’t. Ultimately, the commercialization of space could lead to a future many have long dreamed of.
At first, this increase in privatization means better access to technology we use every day, such as GPS and satellite imagery. In the next decade, it could finally herald the arrival of the space tourism industry first promised in the mid-20th century.
Space planes like Skylon, illustrated, could make use of spaceports in the future. Reaction Engines
The New Space Race
There are a number of factors contributing to the current boom. Some suggest it is the increasing availability of data and images from satellites. Others point to a general fascination with space – salaries in the space industry are not as lucrative as other areas such as energy or technology, but people are willing to take the cut to work in an area they love.
But one explanation for the latest boom seems to be favored by all: the Elon Musk effect. His company, SpaceX, has drastically reduced the cost of sending equipment to orbit, thanks to the relatively low operating costs of its Falcon 9 rocket and its ability to carry multiple satellites or spacecraft on board.
In doing so, he’s forcing other launch operators, such as the United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Arianespace, to rethink their own strategies. The former recently announced their new low-cost Vulcan rocket in an attempt to stem the tide of business to Musk. And with SpaceX in the process of making their rockets reusable, these costs are only going to get lower.
SpaceX has been making waves in the launcher business. SpaceX
“Musk is starting to push the envelope, and a lot of other people have as well, and now you have the private sector getting competitive about how we can lower the cost of getting to space,” said Causey. “In terms of timing, we could have done this conference three years ago and it would have been too early. We could do it three years from now and we could be too late.”
As NASA focuses on missions further into the cosmos, namely Mars, it is keen for private companies to take up the mantle of occupying and maintaining Earth orbit. This includes things like communications satellites, but also the utilization of the vast array of data coming back from space. And Causey is confident that the time is right for this to happen.
“If it isn’t the real deal now, I’m shocked,” he said. “The only question is the time frame.”
This is the first of a two-part series. Read part 2, How Companies Are Commercializing The Cosmos, here.