The Conversation: A Decade Of Commercial Space Travel – What & # 39; s Next?


In many industries, a decade is barely enough time to bring about dramatic changes, unless something bad happens – a new technology, a business model or a service design. The space industry has recently enjoyed all three.

But 10 years ago none of these innovations were guaranteed. In fact, on September 28, 2008, an entire company saw and hoped for a final launch after three failures of their flagship product. Because the money was almost gone, this was the last shot. More than 21,000 kilograms of kerosene and liquid oxygen ignited and two booster stages of the starting block.

When that Falcon 1 rocket successfully reached a job and the company secured a next contract with NASA, SpaceX had the & # 39; startup-dip & # 39; survived. That milestone – the first privately developed rocket with liquid fuel that reached the tower – created a new space industry that is changing our world, both on this planet and beyond. What has happened in the intervening years, and what does it mean to move forward?

While scientists are working on developing new technologies that address the myriad technical problems of space, there is another segment of researchers, including myself, who are studying the business angle and the operational challenges facing this new industry. In a recent article, my colleague Christopher Tang and I are investigating the questions companies need to answer to create a sustainable space industry and enabling people to establish extraterrestrial bases, to develop asteroids and to increase space travel – while governments increasingly smaller plays a role in financing space companies. We believe that these business solutions may contain the less glamorous key to unlock the universe.

The new global space industry

When the Soviet Union launched their Sputnik program and in 1957 put a satellite in orbit around the earth, they started a race to space, fueled by international competition and fears of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and the United States played the leading roles through a series of "firsts & # 39; to bring the record books together. The first chapter of the space race culminated with Neil Armstrong and the historic lunar landing of Buzz Aldrin's Apollo 11 that required massive government investment, in the order of US $ 25.4 billion, nearly $ 200 billion in today's dollars.

Competition characterized this early part of space history. This eventually evolved into cooperation, with the International Space Station being a great example, while governments worked towards shared goals. Now we have entered a new phase – openness – with private, commercial companies leading the way.

The industry for launching spacecraft and satellites is becoming increasingly commercialized, partly as a result of shrinking government budgets. According to a report from the investment firm Space Angels, a record of 120 venture capital companies invested more than $ 3.9 billion last year in private space companies. The space industry is also becoming global, no longer dominated by the rivals from the Cold War, the United States and the USSR.

In 2018 there are 72 orbital launches so far, an average of two per week, of starting blocks in China, Russia, India, Japan, French Guinea, New Zealand and the United States.

The revival of orbital launches of actual missiles and launches of spacecraft, including satellites and probes launched from space, coincide with this openness of the past decade.

More governments, companies and even amateurs are involved in different launches of spacecraft than ever before. Innovation has flourished with more involved entities. As Roberson notes in Digital Trends, "Private, commercial space flight, even exploration, mining and colonization in the moon – it is suddenly all on the table, making the race for space nowadays more vital than it has felt in years."

One can clearly see this vitality in the news. On September 21, Japan announced that two of its unmanned robbers, named Minerva-II-1, had landed on a small, distant asteroid. For perspective, the scale of this landing is comparable to hitting a target of 6 centimeters from 20,000 kilometers away. And earlier this year, people around the world were in awe as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket was successfully launched and, more impressively, its two boosters were traced back to a landing site in a synchronized ballet of epic proportions.

Challenges and opportunities

In the midst of the growth of capital, companies and knowledge, both researchers and practitioners need to find out how entities have to manage their daily activities, organize their supply chain and develop sustainable operations in space. This is complicated by the obstacles that form the space: distance, gravity, inhospitable environments and information scarcity.

One of the biggest challenges is to get the things that people want in space, in space. Producing everything on earth and then launching it with rockets is expensive and restrictive. A company called Made In Space operates in a different way by maintaining an additive production facility on the International Space Station and 3D printing in space. Tools, spare parts and medical devices for the crew can all be made on request. The benefits include more flexibility and better inventory management on the space station. Moreover, certain products can be produced better in space than on earth, such as pure optical fibers.

How should companies determine the value of production in space? Where should capacity be built and how should this be scaled up? The figure below divides the origin and destination of goods between earth and space and ranks products in quadrants. People have mastered the lower left quadrant, made on earth, for use on earth. From that point onwards, each quadrant introduces new challenges, for which we have less and less expertise.

I first became interested in this particular problem when I listened to a panel of robotics experts discussing building a colony on Mars (in our third quadrant). You can not build the structures on Earth and simply send them to Mars, so you have to produce them there. But placing human builders in that extreme environment is equally problematic. In essence, a completely new production method whereby robots are used and automation in a previously sent sender may be required.

Resources in space

You might wonder where you get the materials for production in space, but there is in fact an abundance of resources: metals for production can be found in asteroids, water for rocket fuel is frozen like ice on planets and moons. , and rare elements like helium-3 for energy are embedded in the crust of the moon. If we bring that specific isotope back to earth, we can eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.

As demonstrated by the recent Minerva-II-1 asteroid landing, people acquire the technical know-how to locate and navigate these materials. But extraction and transport are open questions.

How do these issues change the economy in the space industry? Organizations such as Planetary Resources, Moon Express, Deep Space Industries and Asterank already organize these opportunities. And scholars begin to make an overview of questions about property rights, exploitation and partnerships.

Threats due to space debris

The film "Gravity" is opened with a Russian satellite exploding, causing a chain reaction of destruction due to debris on a space shuttle, the Hubble telescope and part of the international space station. The order, although not perfectly plausible as written, is a very real phenomenon. In fact, a Russian satellite fell apart in 2013 when it was hit by fragments from a Chinese satellite that exploded in 2007. Known as the Kessler effect, the danger of the 500,000-plus space debris has already received some attention in public policy circles. How should this risk be prevented, reduced or reduced? Quantifying the environmental impact of the space industry and tackling sustainable operations is yet to come.

What's next?

It is true that space simply becomes another place to do business. There are companies that arrange the logistics to get your predetermined module on board a rocket; there are companies that will fly those missiles to the international space station; and there are others who can make a replacement part there.

What comes next? In a way it is everyone's guess, but all the signs point to the fact that this new industry is approaching. A new breakthrough can change the speed, but the course seems to be: move away from home, be it the moon, asteroids or Mars. It is hard to believe that SpaceX launches were not successful 10 years ago. Today, a vibrant private sector consists of dozens of companies working on everything from commercial spacecraft and rocket propulsion to space mining and food production. The next step is to consolidate the business practices and the maturing of the industry.

I see the future in a large hall at the University of Pittsburgh as part of the conference on the borders of the White House. The latest virtual reality glasses are wrapped around my head. I look at the surface of Mars. Every detail is immediate and clear. This is not just a video game or an aimless exercise. The scientific community has invested funds in such efforts because exploration is preceded by information. And who knows, in 10 years someone will be on the actual surface of Mars.

Joel Wooten, assistant professor in management sciences, University of South Carolina

This article has been republished in The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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