The Time for Space

In the world of startup tech companies timing is a big part of what makes or breaks a business. Too early, customers aren’t ready, the market doesn’t exist, or the technology isn’t mature enough to work. Too late and someone else has a commanding lead in the market. Timing a startup has to be perfect. The new space economy features many of the same dynamics. There are certainly many brilliant visions for our future in space whose time is not yet here.

Space companies have started to get the eye of VC firms. The dropping price of access to space is creating opportunity for smaller and more nimble startup companies to gain a foothold and bring new ideas to reality. Combined with the newly available capital is a recipe for disrupting the status quo of traditional aerospace.

It has been said that President Kennedy pulled the future forward when they landed a man on the moon in 1969. We had no business accomplishing that with the technology of the time.

In either case, today we can say that the technology to get back to the moon is more approachable than ever.  The Google Lunar X prize kick started a bunch of small companies to take an honest attempt at putting a rover on the moon, and this year we’ll see several of those attempts happen. Access to the moon is now within the budget of small well funded startups. It’s exciting, but let’s try not to get ahead of ourselves again.

The key to a successful business is making money and that requires customers. Right now there are very few customers for the moon.

NASA is the biggest customer of space technology, and has a backlog of projects ready to fly or near ready to fly to the moon should the opportunity come up. For the Moon, NASA is taking every opportunity to put retroreflectors on every lander – they put one on the SpaceIL Beresheet lander. Once landed on the moon, retroreflectors can be used to get accurate positioning of lunar satellites and then in turn help to provide some lunar positioning services to future spacecraft. In the run up to the 2024 crewed mission back to the moon, NASA will need to get as many robots and technology demonstrations on the moon as possible to prepare, so NASA is one key customer for any budding space company with an eye on the moon.

However, there is no commercial business customers for the moon as of yet. This presents a hurdle. You can’t simply cold call NASA to see if they’re interested in buying your space service.

When looking at the space companies that have been successful in recent memory, the current crop of rocket launch companies are some obvious winners. Reducing the cost of rockets and pioneering 3D printed rockets or reusable rockets is something where the timing was right for it to happen. 3D Printed metals have finally become good enough to build complex things out of materials that can stand up to the tortures of heat and pressure of a rocket engine. Computers have gotten good enough for real-time control of the balance of a rocket with engines that can restart and throttle down to near zero for landing. These were not possible not that long ago. The timing was right 10-15 years ago to start a rocket company.

Private companies are doing very well with cubesats for remote sensing.  The low cost satellites can gather valuable information which has many uses and plenty of customers.  For the last 5 years or so the time is right to start a business with micro satellites.

Lower launch costs have created some new opportunities that were not possible before. Low orbit satellite internet with constellations of 1000s of satellites is only now possible due to both the miniaturization of satellites, and cheap, frequent launches. Several companies have plans to build global internet services – SpaceX, OneWeb, Telesat, and Amazon each have plans to launch thousands of satellites. This is something that wasn’t possible a couple years ago, but has only now become a feasible business.

For both the remote sensing cubesats and the satellite internet constellations the customers are people back on earth. We haven’t yet transitioned to a space economy based on customers who are themselves in space.

The transition to businesses that sell to customers in space will be a subtle but major shift, but not an easy one to manage.

Ideas for what will be possible in this future of space economies and businesses are easy to find as they’ve been explored in sci-fi for decades. But what business ideas will see their time in the next 5-10 years is difficult to forecast.

Bigelow Aerospace licensed the rights to inflatable space habitat technology from NASA in the year 2000. Looking back, it seems that was a much too early. The world just wasn’t ready for privately funded space stations. We needed cheaper rockets first. Today, the prospect of a privately run space station is perhaps viable, but not yet proven. I think now is the time to finally start development of space hotels and stations for 2 reasons – NASA is looking for companies to potentially take over operational management of the ISS, and secondly, the demand for getting things on the ISS is high – which indicates an unmet demand.

More space stations in LEO will put more people (customers) in space. This would be foundational to creating a space economy in an organic way.

For a long time people have called for the creation of fuel depots in orbit. Several clever ideas for building them have been proposed, but they all suffer from the same flaw. Lack of customers. Fuel stations in space won’t make sense until there are customers in space that need fuel. We are at least a decade away from a viable market for privately provided fuel in space.

Government plays an important role in opening up new markets and they can kick start things by being the initial buyer that diffuses the catch 22 scenario. People won’t do anything that requires fuel in space, because there’s none for sale, and there’s none for sale because there are no customers that need it. In comes a forward looking government to be the first buyer by committing to buy services from business if they were to provide the service. This breaks the impasse and can jumpstart a self-sustaining market. By committing to be the early buyer, governments could create entirely new billion dollar markets that otherwise might never exist.

When thinking about creating a space technology company or any company really timing is critical. The right idea at the right time, with the right execution is needed. For opening new markets like we are seeing at the edge of humanity’s push into space, Government plays a role in creating those new economies. Today we live in an exciting time where the pace of progress is accelerating and approaching a tipping point.

NASA has started to embrace being the customer of more private services, and is looking for opportunities to empower more private companies to build and run the infrastructure for cislunar space. There is some foresight to this strategy. If NASA can bring private industry to ‘own’ the communications networks, rocket launch services, lunar landers, power and energy services and other core elements of space travel then other companies looking to do things in space or on the moon will buy from those american companies.  There is the potential that america will lockup control of access to future trillion dollar markets as we develop the truly lucrative space resources sector.

Timing is critical and the time is now to start building out or competing for this future in space.