Above and Beyond: Exploring the Business of Space

Posted on: 17 June 2018

By Louis Brennan, Professor in Business Studies

Space has long been a source of great human captivation and fascination. Human interest in space peaked during the course of the Space Race during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the USA. That period culminated with the first successful human landing on the moon in July 1969, an event, I still recall from my early childhood. While interest in space waned in the decades that followed, recent years have seen a resurgence in interest in space and a transformation of the space sector itself.

Traditionally, the space sector was predominately the domain of national governments and their agencies. However, the past decade and more has seen the entry into the space sector of a series of wealthy private sector players notably Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Elon Musk and others. Even more recently, space has started to attract the interest of venture capital and increasingly we are seeing the emergence of start-up entrepreneurial ventures in the industry. Thus, space is transforming from a predominantly government activity to one that involves both public and private sector actors.

With the entry into space venturing of new super-empowered individuals such as Bezos 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 in the future.

I cannot be more emphatic about the benefits that flow from space endeavours than to list some of the many items enumerated by NASA that we would not have today without the space sector. These 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 endeavours, but many of the activities we routinely 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 smartphones. 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 progress 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.

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 stages 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 to 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 travelling 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. Other states such as India and Japan appear likely to 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 Groucho Marx 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.

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Caoimhe Ni Lochlainn, Head of Library Communications | nilochlc@tcd.ie | +353 1 896 4710