The space economy has been billionaires with big rockets. But the post-launch economy is more democratized, and there’s room for everyone to play.
Since its founding in 1958, NASA has held a reputation for being at the forefront of space exploration, often being the first to achieve significant milestones. Initially established for research and development purposes to support national interests, NASA’s mission extended beyond civil, defense, and security applications to foster commercial development and advantage for the United States. The space economy now has moved far beyond just the government, with industry taking humanity off-world, to stay.
NASA prioritized space exploration from the 1960s to the early 2000s, with significant successes. In that time, they achieved seven moon landings and the launch of the first space shuttle. In the 1990s, its attention shifted to more comprehensive scientific endeavors – launching the Hubble Space Telescope and initiating the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). A renewed focus on Mars exploration emerged in the early 2000s, highlighted by successful landings of rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
Between 2010 and 2020, there was a fundamental shift in the space industry, with private space companies like SpaceX playing a more prominent role. NASA began leveraging private companies for ISS supply missions, transitioning from being a spacecraft operator to a customer of commercial space services.
Space economy today
For decades, the space industry has focused on building the necessary systems and infrastructure for getting to space. The space economy has been billionaires with big rockets. But the post-launch economy is more democratized, and there’s room for everyone to play.
The methods for getting into space are now being commoditized. Bringing people and things into space has become agnostic of the incredible things people can do there. As we move further into the post-launch economy, the focus has shifted to the many benefits and capabilities made possible by the ability to get to space. And the space economy is growing and evolving all the time. Morgan Stanley’s Space Team estimates that the global space industry, worth roughly $350B today, could surge to over $1T by 2040.
There are a lot of naysayers who still believe that too much money and resources are going into space exploration. Those are the same people who don’t fully understand the significant outcomes we can produce in space for the world on Earth. There are four exciting areas of focus in the space economy: advanced propulsion, medicine and biologics, infrastructure, and resources.
Advanced propulsion focuses on two main objectives: improving travel speed in space, and fuel types and sources. Advanced propulsion technology in space is crucial for exploring the vast distances of outer space and enabling long-duration missions. A mission that would have taken 40 years in the past could be shortened to only 10 years with faster speeds and better fuel types.
Cutting-edge propulsion projects
Companies like Magdrive, Helicity Space, Pulsar Fusion, and Neutron Star Systems are at the forefront of advanced propulsion technology. They are developing technologies that will make deep-space travel and long-term missions safer, more affordable, agile, robust, and reliable than ever before.
For example, Magdrive has created a high-power propulsion system for small spacecraft. The Magdrive-nano weighs just 1 kg and is 10 times more efficient than thrusters in existing systems. Its smaller size and lower price point make faster, more affordable space travel possible.
Another example is Pulsar Fusion, which is creating an ecosystem of clean space propulsion systems and services. They are laying the groundwork for nuclear fusion technologies, which have the potential to revolutionize space travel.
Medicine and biologics
Much medical and biological research and development is taking place on the International Space Station (ISS), which holds the world’s only microgravity laboratory. This work will enable us to provide different medical treatments and make discoveries. Areas of interest include biomanufacturing and drug discovery and development.
Biomanufacturing in space uses biological systems to produce products in the microgravity environment of space. This can include using microbes, plants, or animal cells to create food, medicine, materials, and other products.
There are several advantages to biomanufacturing in space. First, the microgravity environment can improve the growth and production of some biological systems. For example, microbes can grow more densely in microgravity, and plants can grow taller and faster. Second, space provides a unique environment to produce products that are difficult or impossible to create on Earth. For example, certain protein crystals can only be grown in microgravity – something Bristol Myers Squibb and several others are working on.
Drug discovery and development
Space-based drug discovery and development has the potential to revolutionize the way we develop new drugs and therapies. For example, space-based research could lead to the development of new medicines for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and other diseases that are difficult to treat with current therapies.
Researchers use microgravity to study how cells interact with each other and their environment. This research could lead to the development of new drugs that target specific cell types or repair damaged cells. They can also use space-based facilities to test new drug candidates in a microgravity environment. This testing can help identify potential side effects and ensure the drugs are effective.
Recently, InnoStudio flew experiments to the ISS to see if microgravity could increase the efficiency and reduce the risk of remdesivir – an antiviral medication used to fight COVID-19. Other companies like Merck & Co. and Bristol Myers Squibb are conducting experiments on the ISS to improve drug development and manufacturing.
All these advancements are laying the foundation for even more advanced medicine and biologics in space. Scientists are working on in-space surgeries that could reduce the risk of bleeding, swelling, and infection, and improve precision. Surgeries considered high-risk on Earth could be routine in a microgravity environment. While no humans have undergone in-space surgery, scientists have managed to do many surgical procedures including repairing rat tails and performing laparoscopic surgery in microgravity. These are important milestones for our interplanetary future. Infrastructure, or in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing
In-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM) is a new and emerging field that is making huge strides in space operations. ISAM capabilities include refueling spacecraft, assembling new structures, and manufacturing materials in space. These capabilities will allow us to operate in space more efficiently and effectively and support critical missions ranging from national security to space exploration.
Servicing – Servicing involves a broad spectrum of tasks, including repairing, enhancing, and rejuvenating satellites. It encompasses refueling, repairing, replacing, or improving existing space assets. Servicing is crucial for extending the lifespan of satellites and keeping them up to date with evolving Earth-based technology. It represents a significant shift from the traditional one-and-done spacecraft approach, where satellites were designed to operate independently for their entire lifespan.
Assembly – Assembly in space involves bringing multiple separate parts together to create a single, functional structure. This approach allows for the launch of individual components separately and then assembling them in space, thus overcoming the constraints posed by rocket fairing volume limitations. This capability enables realizing previously considered impossible concepts, such as constructing habitats in distant locations beyond low-Earth orbit and building large telescopes and other platforms that would be unfeasible otherwise.
Manufacturing – Manufacturing includes creating components as needed, offering adaptability to unforeseen challenges, and potentially reducing the necessity to launch numerous components, including backups, in advance. This capability also enables the production of unique, seamless structures. Additionally, on-orbit manufacturing allows for the application or renewal of surface coatings to restore optical and thermal properties.
As ISAM capabilities mature, they will have a significant impact on the way we operate in space.
As explored in my last article, Relativity Space is working on printing and assembling large structures on Mars, which will increase value and efficiency without compromising the health and safety of in-space workers.
A fundamental driver of conflict throughout human history has been scarcity of resources and the limitations on people’s ability to achieve food, shelter, and physical security – the bottom rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Space helps solve that. Our solar system alone has centuries or even millennia worth of resources. And as robotic missions move to other star systems, we can expect infinite resources.
Mining in space
Asteroids and the moon are chock-full of critical resources. For example, NASA plans to send a probe to the asteroid Psyche later this year. This mission has the potential to completely disrupt and flatten the nickel and cobalt commodity markets if the ore there could be captured. Additionally, tens to hundreds of thousands of other asteroids are worth trillions of dollars and could eliminate the need for critical metals on Earth. Furthermore, the moon is rich with rare metals deposited by asteroids. By capturing these resources, we could eradicate horrific traditional mining practices across the globe. Regulations are necessary, but overregulation can kill progress
There are still people who feel skeptical about the changing space economy. Some think governments should allocate less money to space development and more should go into on-plant endeavors. Many are calling for an increase in regulations. While there is no doubt that regulation is vital in the evolving commercial space industry to maintain safety, order, and accountability, overregulation can hinder growth and innovation.
As Thunderbird Clinical Professor Greg Autry rightly pointed out, “Space is not just a frontier for exploration, but a realm of infinite possibilities where humanity can push the boundaries of knowledge, inspire future generations, and foster the growth of industries that will benefit the Earth and everyone on it. While regulation is often necessary, overregulation or regulation that isn’t necessary, effective, and flexible kills progress.”
Finding the right balance is crucial in regulation, ensuring safety and accountability without imposing unnecessary burdens on startups and small companies. Effective regulation must embody flexibility, logic, and adaptability to accommodate technological advancements, emerging business models, and changing industry practices. Also read: Inspecity Space Laboratories: Providing in-space succour to satellites
Regulatory balancing act
Regulation should balance human concerns and scientific and engineering principles and promote free enterprise, innovation, and competition. Recognizing the growth of the commercial space industry as a significant transitional period in human history, the short-term sacrifices and “switching costs” should be considered against the potential long-term benefits for people, the planet, and profit.
Regulation of the commercial space industry is a delicate balancing act that should uphold safety and responsibility without impeding innovation and growth. By adopting inclusive, flexible, and well-informed regulations, we can create a conducive environment for the industry, fostering an era of space exploration that supports sustainable prosperity for all humankind.
Space supports sustainable prosperity
The activities that are possible in the post-launch economy have the potential to address some of humanity’s most pressing challenges and contribute to a more sustainable and inclusive future for all.
“Space exploration and development hold the key to sustainable prosperity, as it has the potential to positively impact every United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), from eradicating poverty and hunger to ensuring quality education, promoting gender equality, and mitigating climate change,” said Sanjeev Khagram, director general and dean of Thunderbird School of Global Management. “The vast opportunities and resources that space offers pave the way for a brighter and more inclusive future for all.”
18th SDG: Space Economy
According to a proposal from the National Space Society (NSS), achieving the UN’s 17 SDGs will require that “the international community supports, enables, embraces and promotes space exploration and utilization and the development of a space economy.” The NSS is just one member of an international space coalition urging to include the sustainable development of a space economy as the 18th SDG. In their proposal, they lay out many of the capabilities of space development that support the other SDGs.
Remote sensing - Remote sensing satellites provide critical data for monitoring land use, soil, snow cover, drought, and crop development, as well as water cycles, air quality, forests, and other aspects of the natural environment, and the epidemiology of infectious diseases, directly addressing SDGs one, two, three, six, seven, and 11 through 15.
Telecommunications technologies - Satellite communication enables information sharing and web conferencing, which supports SDGs three through five and eight through 10.
Cooperation - Space creates unique opportunities to develop multilateral partnerships and is critical to monitoring treaty adherence. This directly supports SDGs 16 and 17.
Developing space technologies - The possibility of human presence in space has led to countless technological advancements, enabling humans to live and thrive on different planets.
Developing nations in space
One way that space supports sustainable development is by improving the ability of developing countries to join the space economy. Kenya, for example, is one developing country leading the way with a new space agency and port. According to Space Hubs Africa, at the end of 2022, 14 African countries had 52 satellites in space. In April 2023, Kenya launched its first observation satellite.
India and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) are also committed to developing the space economy and are actively looking for ways to collaborate and participate in space-related activities. In September 2023, the ISRO hosted delegates from Kenya to discuss the advancement of the Kenyan-Indian space cooperation. Space democratization enables many other nations in Africa and Asia to improve their space capabilities by creating bilateral agreements, investing in space-related technologies, and constructing launch facilities.