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Entrepreneurship

Space entrepreneurship and its motivational drivers

A huge space entrepreneurship boom is coming. In fact, it has already started. And it’s already big.

The space industry was worth about $350 billion in 2016 and is predicted to grow to over a trillion US dollars by 2040, according to Morgan Stanley. Yet, there are several predictions by others who expect a much higher growth that will result in a market size of $3-4 trillion between 2040-2050.

Moreover, venture capitalists invested globally about $5.8 billion in 178 space startups in 2019, although Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin accounted for about 41% of these investments. This year, Virgin Galactic raised $480 million by becoming a publicly traded company with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

NASA’s new Artemis program involving a number of commercial and international partners is set out to establish a sustainable presence of humans on the Moon. By building a lunar colony and “practicing” living in space, NASA prepares for its future missions to Mars and beyond.

Elon Musk plans to send a first crewed flight to Mars in 2024 and tweeted that it would be possible to have a self-sustaining city on the red planet by 2050.

Elon Musk on the colonization of Mars.

We’re seeing these pioneers developing reusable rockets, new spacecrafts, landers, technologies and methods that will help humanity explore and colonize space, or even enjoy it as a tourist.

At the same time, we’re seeing a great number of new startups, and even governments, to join the space race that has been cited as the new “Gold Rush”. Consequently, the cost of sending anything to space is decreasing rapidly. And this has an exponential effect on the growing space entrepreneurship.

But why do so many people and organizations want to go to space? What’s their motivation? Why don’t we first fix the problems on Earth before investing so much in space?

In this article, I try to answer these questions and make sense of the motivations behind the new space economy.

Why space entrepreneurship?

It’s been almost 50 years since humans were on the Moon. That’s also the farthest a man has ever traveled, so far.

While space missions have historically been carried out to a great extent by governmental bodies such as NASA, recent technological developments and attitudinal changes have led to the emergence of a rapidly growing public-private collaborative space economy. The new space age is full of energy, hope and visionaries with financial resources that can get us back to the Moon and beyond.

However, there are also many people who argue against the space economy. There are arguments stating that investments in space are waste of money while that money could be invested in the management of our current problems on Earth. Other arguments revolve around human lives vs. robotics. They argue that we’re killing people by sending them to space, although only 19 astronauts have died in space missions as of 2020.

So why space entrepreneurship? Why not focus on fixing our current and most pressing problems first? Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a famous astrophysicist and author, has an interesting response to questions like these: He said:

Just imagine, we’re all in a cave. We’re cavemen. And I say: “I’d like to go out of the cave and explore what’s across the valley and over the hills.” And then you come to me and say: “Nope. You can’t do that. We have problems in the cave. We’ve got to fix the cave problems first. That has high priority. You can’t go out beyond the cave.”

Neil DeGrasse Tyson speaking about space.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

His point is clear. Yes, we have lots of problems on Earth, but we may never be able to fix them all. And there will probably always be new problems once we’ve solved the other ones. But maybe the gains from space can solve some of the existing problems on Earth. See for example here how many important innovations that were using today in our everyday lives were first developed for space exploration.

There are several reasons for why people are so interested in joining the space race. While I am not going talk much about money and profits directly, the potential for economic returns may be relatively low in short-term but enormous in mid- to long-term.

Here are the main reasons and motivations behind space entrepreneurship.

Saving humankind

A number of pioneers have argued that humanity is in danger and that we need to do something to save our species. Space has emerged as a difficult but exciting option.

For example, Elon Musk is currently one of the most prominent innovators who want to explore deep space and colonize Mars. He has repeatedly argued that we need to become an interstellar species to avoid the extinction of humanity potentially caused by a third world war, fatal diseases or other celestial bodies crashing into our planet.

An asteroid entering and burning in Earth's atmosphere.
An asteroid glows as it enters Earth’s atmosphere.

Also scientists have pointed out the risk of asteroids and comets hitting Earth and potentially destroying all life on the planet. Stephen Hawking, a famous cosmologist, said that it’s only a matter of time until this happens. The longer it takes, the higher the risk. Asteroids and comets can behave unpredictably and they can come a long way at a high speed before we even discover them. And even if we discover them, what can we do? NASA is currently developing a one-way spacecraft for its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) that it will send into space to deliberately smash it into an asteroid in 2022. But this doesn’t mean that it’s going to work.

Another tech mogul and billionaire, Jeff Bezos, stated that we are destroying Earth ourselves and polluting the oceans, soil and air by operating heavy industries and using toxic chemicals. Severe consequences from the climate change could be reduced “by outsourcing our most destructive behaviors to space“.

Space entrepreneurship in a future space colony according to Jeff Bezos' vision.
Future space colony as per Jeff Bezos’ vision. Source: Blue Origin.

While Bezos’ vision has aroused great interest, Musk said it’s too expensive and difficult to move all the mass required for such gigantic structures floating in the space. However, Bezos mentioned explicitly that his vision is probably not going to realize during our lifetime, but that we need to start building a proper infrastructure for it.

Exploration and science

A number of other people and organizations are interested in knowing more about the universe and developing new technologies alongside scientific tools that allow us to not only explore space but also improve our lives on Earth.

The goals of governmental space agencies, such as NASA, ESA and Roscosmos relate mainly to exploring the universe and understanding its existence and evolution. This involves building satellites that collect data from the Solar System and beyond, and rovers to explore possible sources of life on other planets. Human-made space structures such as the International Space Station (ISS) play an important role as literally hundreds of scientific experiments take place there every day. Also, landers are those incredibly complex vehicles that actually bring humans and cargo to the surface of other celestial bodies like the Moon and Mars. And yet, to be able to send these into space in the first place, we need more efficient launch vehicles. All this requires immense investments in new technologies, alternative sources of energy and testing.

Opportunity rover exploring Mars.
An artist’s conception of the Opportunity rover exploring Mars. Source: NASA

We already know a lot about the other planets in our Solar System, but there’s so much more we could learn. And the center of our Solar System, the Sun, is just one of the several billion stars – alone in our Milky Way galaxy. New knowledge could help us find out where life is, or has been, possible. All this development in space exploration and science provides us with extremely valuable and educational information that allows us to better understand why we exist and what next steps we can take to increase that understanding.

Safety and security

Private companies and governmental bodies are also interested in establishing safety and security standards both on earth and in space. There are currently almost 3,000 satellites orbiting Earth. They collect data on natural disasters like hurricanes, floods and forest fires as well as human-caused phenomena such as deforestation, traffic and pollution. These data help us both predict natural catastrophes and provide support for rescue work when they happen.

At the same time, satellites provide Internet, radio, TV and navigation services like the Global Positioning System (GPS). They also enable imagery and surveillance to detect criminal activity. For example, satellites help in detecting illegal development and possession of nuclear weapons; infrared satellites can search for waste heat leaving buildings or being pumped into rivers or oceans. Satellites can also be used to prevent terrorism, piracy and illegal cropping.

Also, imagine you’re leading a country like the U.S. and you decide to take away NASA’s budget and basically put a stop to all activities related to space. What would happen? While private companies might still bring in some profits, they don’t make the rules in space. If other countries such as China, Russia, India and others were still to continue their space missions, the U.S. would risk its role as an important player in the future space economy. If new laws were created, they wouldn’t be able to use their power in the decision making. And if other countries ruled in space, or even on other planets, it would be difficult for the U.S. to make its way to the top decision making bodies afterwards. Moreover, it could miss some enormous opportunities to secure its wealth in the long run. Space has potential to change the world’s overall income distribution.

This is just an imaginary example of what could happen. And just to be clear, it is exactly the collaboration between different countries and private companies that should be a priority. As a result of such collaborative efforts, less wealthy and smaller countries may be able to make considerable gains from the emerging space economy. The initial investments are relatively large and risky, but this is often the case with new and especially technology-focused industries.

Natural resources

Another important reason for why so many people, governments and companies plan to go space, is resources. The current rate at which we’re using Earth’s resources is not sustainable. While the overall human population is growing exponentially, we’re also consuming everything at an increasing pace. Renewable energy is helping us deal with this problem, but we’re not talking only about energy but also materials such as titanium, iron, gold and platinum.

Space represents almost unlimited resources. Asteroids and comets contain great amounts of ice that can be turned into hydrogen, which in turn is used as propellant in spaceflight. They also contain precious metals such as iron, titanium, gold and platinum that are used in a number of hardware we use in our daily lives.

A single asteroid with a diameter of 10 meters can be worth billions of US dollars. One of the most massive asteroids called 16 Psyche (diameter of about 200 kilometres) has been estimated to contain minerals that are worth $700 quintillion. That’s 700,000,000,000,000,000,000 or seven hundred million trillions. If this was divided between the 7,8 billion humans on Earth, everyone would get about $90 billion. The current size of the world economy is about $133 trillion. Yet, mining an asteroid is extremely difficult, and bringing the minerals back to Earth even more difficult, if not impossible. However, the resources could possibly be used in space instead of transporting them back to Earth. In this way, we would also prevent a mega inflation caused by the “sudden” excess of rare raw materials and the millions of new billionaires.

Asteroid 16 Psyche.
16 Psyche asteroid. Source: NASA

Even the Moon has presumably large amounts of natural resources including ice water under its surface, iron, silicon, aluminium, titanium and others. Further, the abundance of helium-3 is thought to be millions of times greater on the Moon than on Earth. It could be used in the future to generate energy through nuclear fusion.

Fun and excitement

Finally, some people just want to experience something completely new and different. While our planet offers plenty of travel opportunities for experiencing other cultures and scenery, space offers incomparable views to Earth and into that vast darkness with billions of stars that are kind of hard to top with a photo of the Eiffel Tower. Moreover, the idea of being exposed to 2-3 G-forces during the launch and experiencing weightlessness in space attracts a number of people who can afford such a trip.

Earth and polar lights from space.
Earth and aurora borealis from space.

Frankly though, if you were thinking about a comfy couple’s vacation, that’s not going to happen for a while, if ever. Space is a horrible place for humans. Space is a vacuum, which means there’s no air or atmospheric pressure. So without proper equipment, our lungs would break and all the air left in us would be sucked out. The oxygen in our blood would expand and make us a balloon that wouldn’t explode due to the elasticity of our skin. Our tongue and eyes would boil. Space is also a micro-gravity environment, so if we stayed there for a long time, it would cause muscle atrophy and deterioration of our skeleton. Further, the baseline temperature in space is about -270 degrees Celsius or -455 degrees Fahrenheit. And there’s also deadly radiation from different sources such as the Sun.

However, our technological advances and extremely carefully engineered high-tech space suits have enabled more than 200 spacewalks at the ISS to date and 12 men to walk on the Moon. Traveling to the edge of space (that is, Karman line at about 80-100 kilometres or 50-62 miles) in a pressurized spacecraft shouldn’t be a problem, although there are always risks involved. Even flights around the Moon and back, that will take about one week, are planned to start in 2023.

Neptune capsule of Space Perspective.
The near-zero emissions Neptune capsule of Space Perspective.

In the near future, “normal” people will be able to travel to space, travel times ranging from just ten minutes to a week (excluding preparation), maybe even longer. Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Space Perspective, SpaceX and others are all planning to offer such trips with totally different types of approaches and systems. And instead of “just” flying in space, it’s also possible to stay in space. While the ISS is already open for tourists, there are several private companies that are developing and planning to operate commercial space stations and space hotels.

Conclusion

There are several reasons for the increasing space entrepreneurship. While the motivations of governments, private companies and individuals vary, they all have to work together to develop a basic infrastructure for the new space economy in the first place.

If we plan to send humans to the Moon and Mars, we first need to make sure they survive the radiation, vacuum and low-gravity environment. Of course, they also need water and food.

And the whole purpose of sending humans into the deep space is to explore more and build colonies to advance our understanding of the universe and increase our quality of life on Earth. But for such missions those humans will need tools, structures and materials that we will also have to ship from Earth.

To be able to ship so much cargo and humans into space, we need reliable, safe and affordable rockets and launch complexes. In turn, building these requires global large-scale collaboration between private companies and governments and huge risky upfront investments that may lead to considerable economic losses in short-term. However, the potential gains in the long run are immense.

So this certainly is exciting.

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