Business Prospects In Space
~ By Htoo Myat Noe
With the rise of the New Space Age spearheaded by private business companies in the commercial space sector such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin, it goes without a doubt that the space industry is transitioning from one where private companies had to sell to NASA and other governmental stakeholders, to one where the commercial space market could potentially dwarf the current government-led space industry, and maybe, just maybe, eventually even dominate over the entire terrestrial economy decades down the road. In May of 2020, SpaceX earned the title of the first private company to send humans into space. This marks not only a tremendous technological achievement but also the first indication that an entirely new commercial space era could be close at hand. In the past, up to 2019, 95% of the estimated $366 billion in revenue earned in the space sector was from the space-for-earth economy, which refers to the goods or services produced in space, by centralized, government-led space programs, for use on earth, such as telecommunications and internet infrastructure, earth observation capabilities, national security satellites, etc. All of these space-for-earth activities are in the public interest, and the expenditures for these space-for-earth programs can be justified by demonstrating benefits for citizens of our planet, who are (nearly) all on earth. Decreasing costs for launch and space hardware were enticing incentives to invite stakeholders into this market, and companies in a variety of industries have already begun leveraging satellite technology and access to space to propel innovation and efficiency in their earthbound goods and services. In contrast, the space-for-space economy, referring to the goods and services produced in space for use in space, such as mining the Moon or asteroids for material with which to construct in-space habitats or supply refueling depositories — has never been met with such success. Many acknowledge that a space-for-space economy could change many aspects of our lives, from the way we conduct businesses to how we govern societies, but till recently, our planet has never even seen off more than 13 people in space at once, leaving that dream no more than science fiction. However, with SpaceX’s recent mark of achievement in opening up a New Space Age of spaceflight led by private corporations, there is reason to think that we may finally be reaching the first stages of a true space-for-space economy. These corporations have both the intention and capability to bring private citizens to space as passengers, tourists, and eventually as settlers, aiming to develop private space exploration and development on a sustainable scale. However, the issue of socio-economic inequality and the issue of space sustainability arises as these private sectors are eager to put people in space to pursue their interests, not the states’. This could mean that private firms originating from global powers like the US, Russia, and China, which are the major spacefaring nations, could exploit the space environment for resources for their interests if there are no regulatory frameworks put in place by the governmental bodies of these nations. Therefore, developing a sustainable space economy will require judicious government regulation and support. Although NASA and the U.S. Commerce and State Departments’ recent recommitment to “create a regulatory environment in [low-Earth orbit] that enables American commercial activities to thrive” is an indicator that the government is on a path of continued collaboration with industry, there is still room for improvement. Governments should start by clarifying how property rights over limited resources such as water on Mars, ice on the Moon, or orbital slots in space will be governed. Recent measures, including NASA’s offer to purchase lunar soil and rocks, the Executive Order on the governance of space resources, and the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act all highlight that the U.S. government is interested in establishing a regulatory framework to reinforce the economic development of space. In 2017, Luxembourg became the first European country to inaugurate a legal framework securing private rights over resources mined in space, and similar actions have been taken on the domestic scale in Japan and the United Arab Emirates. Moreover, nine countries, though not including Russia and China which are the main leading countries right beside the US when it comes to space exploration, have signed the Artemis Accords, which present a vision for the sustainable and international development of the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. These are important first steps, but they have yet to be established into comprehensive treaties that govern the fair use and allocation of scarce space resources among all major spacefaring nations. Moreover, governments should continue to fill the financial gaps in the still-maturing space-for-space economic ecosystem by funding basic scientific research and by providing contracts to space startups. For instance, Biden’s budget request for 2022 features a huge boost in funding for commercial development of low Earth orbit (LEO), with a budget of $101.1 million, which is an increase of nearly 500% from the previous year. This covers commercial cargo and crew launches to the ISS, like SpaceX’s Dragon missions, as well as NASA’s partnerships with industry to develop commercial destinations in LEO. Similarly, some--but not excessive--government incentives, such as policies to reduce space debris, can help reduce the costs of operating in space for all stakeholders in ways that would be difficult to coordinate independently. (The Commercial Space Age Is Here, 2021) With the rise of the New Space Age, the growing space-for-space economy has been deemed as having great potential in serving as a force of unity between international private firms, with a collaborative, international approach to establishing regulatory frameworks in space being essential in encouraging a sustainable space-for-space economy. Maybe, just maybe, decades down the road, when commercial space stations are merely the norm in our society, when planets become travel destinations, and when mankind has found its own in the New Space Age, we will look back on 2020 as the year when we truly started the fundamentally transformational project of building an economy and a society in space, for space.
References: The Commercial Space Age Is Here. (2021, February 12). https://hbr.org/2021/02/the-commercial-space-age-is-here