Thursday, December 10, 2015

Space Commercialization: Small Sats, Launch Costs, and Florida's Future

Twitter is a very useful communication medium, but I sometimes forget its limitations and my limited skill in utilizing it. I posted a couple of summary tweets from a talk that I gave this morning but wasn't able to formulate my opinions well in the limited space. Blogging seems like the better avenue of expression in this case.

This morning I gave a talk and sat on a panel titled Space Commercialization hosted by the Space Coast Technical Council's Aviation & Aerospace Committee. My fellow panelists were Don Platt, the CEO of Micro Aerospace Solutions, and Mike Vinje, Small Business Technology Manager at NASA KSC. I've met both Don and Mike previously and had a good idea of what they might touch upon. And so, I made my talk a general overview.

Where is the profit in space? It's important to note from the start that money in space is not fictional. According to the Space Foundation's 2015 report, the space industry was a $330 billion business globally in 2014. Roughly half of that comes from government spending. This year was also a big year for venture capitalists with several large investments into companies such as SkyBox, OneWeb, and Planet Labs.

Traditional space profit-makers are large satellite constellations used for navigation (GPS, for example), communications, TV, and radio. Many of the companies involved in these sectors are publicly traded with revenues in the hundreds of millions through tens of billions. Many of these ventures began as military applications with government funding. All have branched out to capture the private commercial market.

Remote sensing and specifically Earth observation is also a huge and diverse industry. Applications for military intelligence are obvious, but alternate applications are vast. Weather and climate monitoring, mapping, and environmental monitoring beyond weather (logging, agriculture, water and plant resources and quality, mineral locations, traffic, infrastructure development or disruption, etc.) are just a few examples of how space data can be useful to businesses on Earth.

The launch industry in the United States is almost entirely commercial with government paying for services as needed. There are too many players to list, but some of the current successes are: Orbital ATK, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic / Scaled Composites / The Spaceship Company, Blue Origin, XCOR, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Masten Space Systems, UP Aerospace, and zero2infinity.

Space components needed for satellites, launching, and ground infrastructure are too numerous to mention. Space manufacturing is an area of potential profit but has not reached its time. Material science, fluid science, biotechnology, biomedical sciences, and protein crystals are some areas of research which show promise. Recent advances in 3D printing have great potential in space as Made in Space has recently demonstrated. Space utilization and integration – providing means to allow others to utilize space – is a great niche area, as NanoRacks has shown.

Space tourism remains an area for the very rich. Space Adventures has flown 7 paying individuals (private astronauts, spaceflight participants, whatever term you'd prefer) to the International Space Station. Virgin Galactic, XCOR, and Sierra Nevada want to enter into the space tourism market as well. Perhaps someday, space tourism will become more commonplace and affordable. I'm hoping to buy myself a ticket someday!

Potential areas of future space commercialization include space mining (on asteroids, the Moon, Mars, or other planetary bodies), rapid global transportation (sometimes called point-to-point transportation), space-based solar power (beaming solar power to Earth's surface), and advanced tourism in deeper space or other planetary bodies. Sign me up for a trip to the Moon.

Panel discussion that I want to highlight has to do with the bottleneck of small satellites needing transportation to space. The small sat and cubesat community is very active in central Florida. Due to the relative ease and inexpensive of building such small satellites, the door has opened for almost anyone to build one, including student groups. But the means to launch these small sats into space is still very limited. For smaller, newer companies who are trying to respond to this market need, there is a large learning curve. Building a spacecraft and operating successfully is a complex, difficult, expensive, and time-consuming process. I cheer on the small launch community in the hope that soon we will see more frequent access to space for these smaller payloads.

Another area that I want to highlight is the continued high expense of launching to orbit or beyond. Generally speaking, launching has gotten more expensive over time. The old technology of chemical propulsion has not seen many improvements over the decades. More R&D into new propulsion technology is needed. Reusability may bring costs down, but it may not be enough (I apologize for leaving out the word “may” in my tweets). We have yet to see a truly reusable rocket so it's hard to judge how such technology will effect the market. I am a skeptic, and my guess is that it won't be enough to make any major dents in launch costs, but I'd love to be proven wrong. It's certainly a step in the right direction.

Florida's Space Coast remains one of the best areas in the world to launch to orbit because of its existing infrastructure, skilled workforce, and geographic positioning. In a conversation I had at a space function last night, we agreed that more rural areas such as Mojave, Texas, and New Mexico offer better areas for test launches. But to create a transportation hub, a population with establish infrastructure is a better bet. It was slow-going for a few years after the retirement of the space shuttle program, but I had no doubt that this area would bounce back and thrive in the evolving space industry. Florida has a lot to offer and has been making a fantastic effort over the years to evolve with the industry, even lead the industry at times. I'm proud to live here.

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