Startups are rocketing to the front of the space race
At a recent conference in San Jose, leading figures in this NewSpace movement (a term used to describe the startups that stand in the shadows of space industry giants such as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin) discussed their big ambitions for the future of spaceflight and novel approaches to exploration.
While many in NewSpace have their sights set on lofty dreams of planetary exploration or asteroid mining, the first steps to getting off the planet are completely down to Earth. NewSpace is clearly a decade old but remains a nascent industry. In the US, space exploration has been dominated by the government through NASA. In part, this was driven initially by a space race and the development of modern electronics.
NewSpace represents a new race, driven by the dreams of a young generation of engineers and enabled by private investors. While NewSpace companies are pursing several different potential markets, asteroid mining is clearly one of the big prizes in the nascent NewSpace market. Deep Space Industries (DSI) from Texas, for instance, is vying to be a leader in the future asteroid mining industry.
Another critical piece of the NewSpace industry is determining new approaches to launching payloads to space. Lowering the cost to lift a pound (or kilogram) to space is vital for the industry’s success.
The emergence of the new space industry can be traced to two different events in the early 2000s. The creation of the Ansari XPrize led to the development of the first privately developed sub-orbital flight by Burt Rutan in 2004 was one inflection point for the industry. And, even earlier, Elon Musk’s launch of SpaceX in 2002, when he became turned off by Russian launch operators, and decided to do-it-himself, building a privately developed orbital launch vehicle.
There are no overnight billionaires in this industry. Elon Musk was saved by friends as SpaceX’s Falcon 1 took four attempts to succeed. As one panelist stated, “the entrepreneurs most likely to succeed in NewSpace industry are operating on $5/hr salaries.”
At the same time, leading figures chosen as conference panelists warned hopeful business types and engineers to think twice about developing another launch vehicle. There are other areas in the new space industry with greater potential now, they said.
The San Francisco Bay Area has a broad array of start-ups which includes Planet Labs, NanoRacks, Spire Global (formerly Nanosatisfi), Google’s SkyBox Imaging, Elysium Space and more. Their pursuits are wide ranging from Elysium placing cremated remains into low-Earth orbit, SpaceVR developing virtual reality imaging platforms, Mountain View concern Made in Space, Inc. offering rugged 3D printers, to Planet Labs, Spire and Skybox offering various cubesat solutions for Earth observations.
While some innovations propelling the NewSpace industry forward are brand new, predicated on the latest and most cutting-edge scientific research, the old saws of the tech industry, like Moore’s Law, are foundational components of NewSpace.
The increasing speed of computing electronics, accompanying advances in programming and also reduced size and power demands has reduced weight, power and volume of the avionics to control a space vehicle and also reduced the size of common payload instruments such as imagers and spectrometers. Cubesats, nanosatellites with a unit size of 10 centimeters cubed are made possible by Moore’s Law.
Additionally, the wealth developed by Silicon Valley ventures has been instrumental. Its responsible for saving SpaceX to making numerous startups possible. NewSpace consists primarily of young generations of engineers and entrepreneurs. The overall space industry has an average age close to 50 and the term “graybeards” was commonly used in panel discussions. Older engineers of the space industry have become senior advisers or have taken management roles to help guide the start-ups.
There is a love-hate relationship with NASA. Regulations and a chauvinism within NASA has been a hindrance but the agency is altering course and taken a more proactive role in NewSpace, according to industry participants.