Entrepreneurs in Space: Musk Shouldn't Have Mars All to Himself
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Up until about 10 years ago, space -- as in outer space -- was reserved for a select few. Access to space required extremely deep pockets and the kind of R&D investments only governments or the biggest corporations could provide.
But all that's changed: Now, high levels of private funding, advances in technology and growing public-sector interest are helping to renew humankind's call to look toward the stars. Privately funded companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX , Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are investing in space exploration and creating a momentum we haven’t seen since humans left the first footprints on the moon.
Coverage of the new space race is of course dominated by those billionaire pioneers. Quite literally, they are opening up new frontiers for research, exploration and resource development, not to mention the thrill of potential space tourism and colonization. But, even more interesting than those moonshot (or martian) efforts are the entirely new industries and markets being spawned by those breakthrough efforts.
Forecasts, in fact, predict the space industry to grow to a trillion dollars by 2040, according to a MorganStanley report. An entire ecosystem around this newly re-emergent industry is being built, and the time has never been better for entrepreneurs to enter the space market. What's more, entrepreneurial opportunities will hardly be solitary: The challenges we’ll face, the problems we'll need to solve and the opportunities for innovation we'll find are beyond the capacity of any single company.
So, clearly, the new titans of the space industry may have opened the path to commercialize space, but the infrastructure needed to realize that potential will require a surge of entrepreneurship here on Earth.
As the rocket and payload delivery industry reboots, the opportunities for innovation are astounding. Chemistry engineers will become as valuable to the new economy as AI Ph.D.s are to Silicon Valley today. Even just moderate advancements in new fuels will have a major industry (and financial) impact.
More importantly, the increasingly viable grand projects like space colonies or asteroid-mining will face a myriad of infrastructure and equipment challenges that entrepreneurs, here on Earth, can address. Just as the automobile (or even the original space race) created the need for thousands of new research, manufacturing and design, a new industry is being created, and the ramifications for our terrestrial economy are immense.
Developing the accompanying chemical, mechanical, and electronic component technologies will require new thinking, as well as industrial expertise. Entrepreneurs have rarely had such an opportunity to build new markets as they do today with the needs of the space industry.
Small packages of big data
Even the more traditional industries are going to be heavily impacted by the new space economy. Consider the satellite industry, which has always played the most prominent role in the space economy. Reports estimate that satellite broadband will see 50 percent to 70 percent of the projected growth over the next two decades, as smaller rockets enable a new breed of smaller, more specifically focused satellites.
Among space technologies, satellites have become an easy access point to the burgeoning space industry. Nearly 1,000 small satellites were launched between 2012 and 2017, with the demand only growing with each passing year.
Whereas tiny satellites could previously fly into space only as hitchhikers on larger, primary payloads and could build experiments only around pre-set orbits, today we can launch dedicated satellites with near regularity with companies like SEOPS. NASA’s Venture Class Launch services are propelling small-satellite-launch vehicles, while companies like Rocket Lab, which a few months ago sent its third small rocket into space, are filling a demand for satellite customers that want to control when and where their launch happens.
Small satellites -- ranging in mass from 1 kg to 500 kg -- can now be built for costs in the mere tens of thousands of dollars, and startups offer containerized sat launches for as little as $300,000. This satellite boom opens the opportunity for unprecedented data and insights.
In farming, satellite data can be used to monitor factors which influence crop yields. In real estate, areas prone to flooding or sinkholes can be more accurately identified, impacting property development and prices. In retail, foot traffic around shopping centers can be monitored in real time, giving an increased overview of how customers behave.
In fact, a ton of opportunity in the satellite industry exists for the same reason why so much opportunity exists related to data science, AI and machine learning. The world runs on analytics now. We crave insight. It’s all about getting the data, and satellite imaging makes that possible.
The next paradigm shift
As obvious as it is, few people are aware that most of what’s going on in space is really about the Earth. We’re on the verge of an entirely new industry, a paradigm shift that will create new markets and transform old ones. And it’s happening today.
With advancements in launch and payload making the industry accessible, we’re extending the productivity and innovation in traditional economies. With geospatial data, we are moving past big data and into extreme data, accelerating innovation in fundamental Earth-based economies.
Likewise, even some of the most seemingly mundane efforts to create the new space economy and infrastructure have the potential for major market returns. So, to entrepreneurs looking for the next big opportunity, I say there’s nowhere to go but up.