This might sound like a scene from a sci-fi movie, but it could be more realistic than you think.
2021 saw record-breaking investment in private space companies, amounting to over $10 billion. It also saw high-profile space expeditions by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, bringing humanity closer to the stars.
A new commercial space industry is emerging, which looks very different to the government activity in space we’ve seen in the past. But what could the commercial space industry look like in future?
A flourishing space tourism sector
Space tourism has existed since Dennis Tito paid to board a Space Adventures expedition to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2001.
But July 2021 was the first-time tourists have been taken into space by a private company. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic led a suborbital—entering space but not completing an orbit of the earth—expedition on the July 11th. Just over a week later, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin took an all-civilian crew into Space, spending 10 minutes above the Earth’s atmosphere. Two months after that, Elon Musk’s SpaceX took another all-civilian crew into space, this time orbiting Earth for three days.
The three expeditions are the first true examples of commercial space tourism, says Greg Autry (pictured), professor of Space Leadership, Business, and Policy at Arizona State University Thunderbird School of Management and former NASA official. They could also represent the start of a new tourism industry.
“We are now looking at at least three other commercial orbital vehicles coming online in the next few years to support suborbital commercial space flight,” Greg adds.
As commercial space tourism emerges, companies have revealed ambitious plans to build privately-owned stations in space.
The first is set to be launched by US company Axiom in 2024. Aerospace specialist Lockheed Martin also plans to build a station with space hardware firm Nanoracks, named ‘Starlab’. Blue Origin also has plans for its own ‘Orbital Reef’ commercial station.
Along with assisting exploration and operations, these space stations could become tourist destinations, taking the industry a step further than travel and creating something closer to a holiday, thinks Christophe Benaroya, head of the MSc in Aerospace Management at Toulouse Business School.
“We’d travel from Earth to this place, then there would be the experience of being in a kind of hotel,” he explains.
Worldwide connectivity and improved climate data
The commercial space sector extends beyond travel, and there are myriad opportunities posed by private sector involvement in space.
The ‘Starlink’ program, developed by SpaceX, is a constellation of satellites promising to deliver cheap internet connectivity to remote locations around the world. Elon Musk hopes Starlink could eventually become a ‘rebuild’ of the internet.
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has currently approved 12,000 Starlink satellites. That’s more satellites than have ever been launched in space, and SpaceX plans for the figure to eventually hit more than 40,000.
“Starlink will eventually fix it so that no matter where you are in the world, you will have high bandwidth internet,” says Greg. “That’s an amazing thing if you live in a village on a south pacific island or in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Private satellites could also help fight the climate crisis. Planet is one of several satellite imagery data companies operating in space. It has 200 satellites providing daily images of the world’s entire land mass.
The company currently provides data to governments and intelligence agencies, but plans to use the technology to help with forestry, natural resources, and energy in future.
“You’re going to get great climate data from these private companies that far exceeds any of the data that you're getting from the few government satellites that are up there now,” says Greg. “There’s a lot of information there that will make things more efficient.”
An off-earth industrial revolution
NASA has awarded contracts to four private companies to begin mining on the moon by 2024. US firm Regher Solar has developed technology which could see solar panel stations in space. Jeff Bezos has even suggested we could eventually see manufacturing plants in space.
While much of this is decades away, it now looks possible for the first time, says Greg. “I think we are really entering a new industrial revolution,” he says.
Will it happen?
Technology may be advancing to a point where much is now possible, but there are barriers which could slow the progress of the commercial space industry.
Questions remain over the financial viability of commercial space travel, and whether it’s a sensible use of resources while Earth battles issues like the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis.
Scenes of billionaires jetting off into space also create image issues, says Christophe (pictured). “Social acceptance is already not really there, we see a lot of opponents to this,” he adds.
There are also regulatory challenges typical of an emerging industry. Currently a ‘learning period’ is in place until 2023, meaning there are few regulations governing passenger safety protocols.
There are also disputes over overcrowding in space, particularly regarding Starlink satellites, which can be visible from the ground and interfere with telescopes. As new innovations emerge, all regulations will also require constantly updating.
Logistical issues are the main barrier, according to Christophe. Currently, astronauts joining the ISS undergo five years of training. Alongside exploration procedures, they’re prepared with protocols for just about any circumstance imaginable, from fires to disease.
A fully functional commercial space station will need to be manned by individuals with similar training. Tourists will also need preparation in battling common spatial issues including disorientation, isolation, and confinement.
“These constraints are probably, surprisingly, the most important constraints compared to technology or even financing things,” Christophe explains.
But these issues are typical of any emerging large-scale innovation, says Greg from Thunderbird. He believes the potential benefits of the commercial space industry will eventually bring it success.
“This has been the case in every early form of transportation. It was very hard for normal people to get a ticket across the Atlantic 200 years ago and it was very expensive to fly in airplanes,” he says. “I think this is the most exciting time to be alive.”
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