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Above and Beyond: Exploring the Business of Space

New book by Professor Louis Brennan

My personal space odyssey:

From as far back as a young child watching the first landing on the moon back in 1969, I have always had a deep interest in space. Although brought up in the remoteness of the West of Ireland, I was fortunate that I had two aunts who lived in Florida and whom we often visited over the years. One of my aunts lived close to what was back then Cape Kennedy and later Cape Carnival. As a result, I had the opportunity to visit the NASA facilities there and also watch some of the launches from her home. Experiencing a launch albeit from some distance is something to savour.

Sometime in the middle of the last decade, I started to give a great deal of thought to what I anticipated would be the emergence of a new of era of space, new space if you will. That thought process led to myself and my collaborator Alessandra Vecchi writing in the second half of the last decade our first book on space “The Business of Space” and its publication in 2011.

Also during the last decade and into this decade, I was asked to chair the Global Steering Committee on the non-Science Benefits of Large Scale Scientific Infrastructures: The Case of the SKA (Square Kilometre Array). This was a group consisting of the world’s leading astronomers, technologists and social scientists whose remit was to prepare the case for the SKA that went beyond the Science benefits and that also spoke to the economic and social benefits. That we did and I subsequently presented that case to participating governments and International Institutions. Happily, the case was accepted by those funding entities and today the work on the construction of the SKA has started. On its completion in the middle of the next decade, the SKA will not only be by far the largest radio telescope in the world, but it will also be one of the largest scientific infrastructures ever constructed and likely to unleash significant scientific discovery pertaining to our universe.

Conscious of the many developments in space since the publication of our earlier book, together with Loizos Heracleous, Alessandra Vecchi and I have now written a second on book on space Above and Beyond: Exploring the Business of Space. In writing this book, I took myself back many times to the earlier book. In doing so, I was continually amazed at how prescient it had been in terms of anticipating the developments in the industry that followed in the years since its publication at the start of the decade.

The Benefits of Space:

I want now to highlight the benefits that flow from the space industry and its endeavours. With the entry into space venturing of new super-empowered individuals such as Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Elon Musk and others, there has been some tendency to dismiss their efforts as simply “boys with toys” and to advance arguments that they would better deploy their vast wealth towards more worthy causes of human need. However, it is important to recognise that the space sector has already contributed in many significant ways to humanity and will continue to do so into the future.

I cannot be more emphatic about the benefits that flow from space than mentioning some of the many items enumerated by NASA that we wouldn’t have today without space travel. These items include Camera Phones, Scratch Resistant Lenses, CAT Scans, MRIs, Athletic Shoes, Foil Blankets, Water Purification Systems, The Jaws of Life, Wireless Headsets, Memory Foam, Freeze Dried Food, Baby Formula, Artificial Limbs, the Computer Mouse and the Portable Computer.

But it is not only the many items that we take for granted today in our everyday lives that have their origins in space, but many of the activities we engage in today have been enabled and in other cases enhanced by space activity. Think of the communication, navigation, monitoring and tracking capabilities that are derived from space. In fact, in a very real sense we are today all connected to space via our smart phones. Our ability to forecast the weather, monitor climate, respond more quickly to natural disasters, manage the growth and harvesting of crops have all been enhanced due to space. Our knowledge of our oceans and even of marine life has been greatly improved. And so on. And I have not even mentioned the great strides in knowledge and understanding of our extra-terrestrial world that space activities have generated.

And yet those benefits are only the beginning of what promises to be a wealth of others from space such as for example the deriving of new sources of energy and raw materials.

The Future of Space:

Finally, I want to look to the future of space. Part of the allure of space and its fascination has always been its intrinsic futuristic nature – in fact space by its nature takes us into the future. So I will seek to identify likely developments into the future. 

Focusing initially on the short term, we can anticipate continued developments in both the upstream and downstream part of the space industry value chain. Already in recent years, we have seen significant advances in rockets particularly in terms of their reusability and hence reduced launch costs and in satellite technology. It is likely that in the coming years we will see more advances in those areas. From a downstream perspective, we can expect enhancements of existing satellite enabled services and the emergence of many more. The challenge in terms of bringing new satellite based services to fruition will lie in the development of viable business models. It is also likely that we will see progress towards the first dedicated tourist flights into space.

Beyond the short term and into the medium and longer term, a number of developments seem likely. The establishment of space colonies and space hotels will usher in the beginning of the humanisation of space. It seems probable that we will have humans traveling to Mars and even landing there. The initiation of space mining seems possible as we seek to capture the resources obtaining on asteroids. Space manufacturing which is already in its early stages on the International Space Station is likely to proliferate. All of those developments will drive the establishment of extra-terrestrial supply chains.

While the recent trend of private sector engagement in the industry, will continue to grow, state actors will remain important leading on deep space exploration and where commercial markets are underdeveloped. China is likely to join Russia and the USA as a space power. The image on the slide is the launch of a Chinese Long March rocket loaded with the Tiangong-1 unmanned space lab module in 2011. Other states such as India and Japan will attain specialised niche roles.

Beyond the medium term to long term, it is difficult to be precise in terms of likely developments. The very obliquity of scientific and technical endeavour often means that the very outcomes that it produces are very different from those anticipated or even sought.  At the same time, forecasting is a difficult and messy process and as someone once said it is especially so when it relates to the future.

But we can be sure that the space sector which is now only in its nascent state will continue to grow and produce outcomes and benefits that we cannot now even imagine. Yes, there will be challenges to be overcome and there will be setbacks. But a combination of humanity’s pioneering spirit, continued invention and innovation and increasing flows of private investment into the sector will assure an exciting and abundant future for the sector with ensuing benefits for humanity.   

Above and Beyond: Exploring the Business of Space by Louis Brennan, Loizos Heracleous and Alessandra Vecchi and published by Routledge is being officially launched at the Shard in London on June 6th, 2018.