Axiom Space plans to build its privately funded commercial space station by 2024. Credit: Axiom Space

RENTON, Wash. — Forecasts that predict the space industry to grow to a trillion dollars by the 2040s will require the development of new markets, even with the modest annual growth rates needed to achieve that goal.

A panel session June 26 at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2018 conference here noted that several reports in the last year by investment banks predicted that the global space economy, currently valued at about $350 billion, could grow to $1 trillion or more in the 2040s.

One report by Goldman Sachs predicted the industry would reach $1 trillion in the 2040s, noted Jeff Matthews, a consultant with Deloitte who moderated the panel discussion. A separate study by Morgan Stanley projected a “most likely outcome” of a $1.1 trillion space economy in the 2040s. A third study by Bank of America Merrill Lynch was the most optimistic, seeing the market growing to $2.7 trillion by the same timeframe.

Those numbers, while seemingly large, reflect only modest annual growth rates. “Depending on which source you use, the space economy right now is about 330 to 350 billion dollars, and it’s been growing towards that level at approximately a six to eight percent compounded annual growth rate per year for the last decade or so,” Matthews said. The Morgan Stanley study, he noted, projected an annual growth rate of seven percent, in line with growth in the recent past.

However, the space industry has been growing at a much slower clip recently. A study released June 13 by the Satellite Industry Association, prepared by Bryce Space and Technology, found that the global space economy in 2017 was $348 billion, an increase of only about one percent from 2016.

The satellite industry, which accounts for the largest part of the overall space economy, grew by three percent in 2017 to $269 billion, according to the same report. That is the similar to growth rates reported in 2015 and 2016, but far below the growth seen in much of the previous decade, including double-digit growth as recently as 2013.

Even assuming a higher growth rate, other panelists believed that achieving a trillion-dollar space economy by the 2040s would require fundamental changes in the industry. “When you look at those existing numbers, it’s almost entirely two things: government and communications,” said Greg Autry, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “I don’t know either of those are continually scalable in the way the projections suggest.”

Autry argued that achieving that trillion-dollar goal required fundamental changes to the forces driving the economy. “I don’t know that you get to a trillion-dollar market if there’s not an inflection point,” he said.

One example of such an inflection he cited is the rise of commercial human spaceflight, including commercial space stations. “I think it will be surprising driver. I have a lot of confidence in companies like Axiom [Space] and Bigelow [Aerospace] to actually fill those space stations.”

Others thing future growth will come from “downstream” applications, rather than space systems themselves. “There’s something like 1,200 satellites. Does it get to a trillion dollars by tripling that?” asked Sunil Nagaraj, managing partner at Ubiquity Ventures. “I’m a little more skeptical on that.”

Nagaraj said he saw more potential for growth from companies that incorporated data and other services from space systems into their own applications. “More easy-to-understand, down-to-Earth applications of space is actually what’s going to drive this, in my opinion, versus pushing more satellites.”

Autry, though, cautioned not to be too specific about what markets might emerge to drive the growth of the overall space economy, recounting his experience in the early computer industry, where games played a much larger role than many initially expected.

“I think we haven’t seen yet what that app is on the NewSpace side,” he said. “I’m confident that it’s there, but I think the most important thing we need to do is not try too much to define the roadmap. There’s going to be some really unexpected detours, and it’ll be interesting to see what they are.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...