Investing In Weightlessness: Space Becomes Big Business’s New Passion
Until recently, space was the exclusive privilege of the governments of global powers. The country’s image was built on, and political battles fought on, advances in the aerospace industry.
Every Soviet child admired Yuri Gagarin and German Titov, and every American child — Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin.
But by the start of the 90's, space exploration had given mankind not only diplomatic power, but also some more practical applications: solar energy, satellite television, mobile communications and a 15 Mb/sec internet.
Distances had lost their critical importance, and access to information had burgeoned to a planetary scale.
There is now an abundance of online photographs of the world’s surface, while military satellite navigation has developed into Google maps, road traffic monitoring and geo-targeting.
Space technologies have escaped from “top secret” files into private hands and transformed themselves into innovative businesses. Various estimates place the size of the global space technology market at around $400 bn per annum and it is growing at a rate of 5% every year.
By 2030, advancements in new technologies and rocket science have the potential to “boost” the market up to $1.5 trillion.
These numbers make space a coveted prize not only for private space companies, but also for the diversification of businesses in other sectors.
Not so long ago, the owner of the world famous retail platform Amazon, Jeff Bezos, announced that space tourist flights would begin as early as 2018. To achieve this, Jeff’s subsidiary Blue Origin is building six reusable New Shepard rockets, each of which will be capable of lifting tourists to an altitude of 100 km.
Microsoft co-founded Paul Allen and the founder of Scaled Composites, aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, joined forces in 2011 to create the Stratolaunch Carrier aircraft.
Their plan was that Stratolaunch (with a wingspan of 117 metres) would become a launchpad for delivering astronauts and freight to the International Space Station. As part of a joint project with NASA called Sidekick, Microsoft is already supplying future ISS workers with Microsoft HoloLens virtual reality glasses that can help prepare and training astronauts much more quickly. Another project by NASA and Microsoft, known as OnSight, will give scientists the opportunity to pay a virtual visit to Mars before they will be able to land on the planet themselves.
It’s not just IT people, but also developers who are dreaming of conquering Mars. Hotel magnate Robert Bigelow’s Bigelow Aerospace company has set itself the ambitious goal of building the first “inflatable” space hotel in near-earth orbit. The Alpha space station project includes both accommodation and working modules for conducting scientific research. Bigelow Aerospace has invested $180 mln in development work and received a further $17.8 mln under a government contract from NASA. Testing of the Alpha space station is scheduled for 2017.
But it’s not just Mars. Bob Richardson, founder and CEO of Moon Express, believes that flights to the Moon are no less of a money-spinner. In the past, one flight to the Earth’s natural satellite would cost explorers billions of dollars. The new Moon Express technology offers expeditions costing just 10 mln. In addition to astronauts, Bob Richardson plans to send MX-1 robots to the surface of the Moon. MX-1 is designed to seek out and develop minerals on the Moon’s surface, the value of which is variously estimated at up to $16 quadrillion.
Yuri Miller, co-owner of the Mail.ru Group and DTS Global, is preparing to invest $100 million of his own money in a project to build the Breakthrough Starshot spaceship. He also plans to put a similar amount into programmes aimed at searching for extra-terrestrial civilizations in cooperation with British physicist Stephen Hawking.
Private business is also setting itself more ambitious goals, such as saving mankind from impending destruction. Brooklin-based company Honeybee Robotics recently joined NASA’s Asteroid Redirect System programme, which aims to save the Earth from a possible collision with an asteroid in the future. Honeybee Robotics is working on a space gun that will fire special charges to break up any approaching asteroid into pieces. A special robot will then catch the parts of the extra-terrestrial body and redirect them for further study. But as mankind’s survival on Earth is still very much under question, progressive minds have turned their sights to Mars. Two New York design companies (Team Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds Architecture Office) have simultaneously come up with the ICE HOUSE Martian home concept, winning the NASA architecture competition. Construction of the buildings is to start in the 2030s. The walls of the houses will be made of a mixture of water, silica and gel.
There is no doubt that the future of aerospace technology promises to be exciting and fascinating, and will henceforth be driven not only by government decisions, but also by the market economy. And that means that new and innovative private players could appear in the space technology arena any day now.