Ross Space Symposium
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he wants his department to help keep the American space industry head of growing global competitors. Credit: Tom Kimmell

WASHINGTON — An agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce is developing its own estimate of the size of the space industry, the most authoritative effort to date to measure space’s role in the broader economy.

In an article published in the December issue of its journal, the Survey of Current Business, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) said it’s starting development of a Space Economy Satellite Account to measure the size of the space industry in the United States.

BEA has a number of such “satellite accounts,” which analyze specific sectors of the U.S. economy. This particular satellite account, the article notes, “will provide an estimate of the space economy’s contribution to current-dollar gross domestic product” as well as estimates of gross output, compensation and employment for industries within the space economy.

The account is a joint effort of the BEA, part of the Commerce Department, and the department’s Office of Space Commerce. The goal is to have a prototype version of the account ready in late 2020, “pursuant to available resources.”

One challenge BEA notes in the article is defining what constitutes the “space economy.” Various studies and reports have offered a range of definitions of what industries are included, as well as how to account for government versus commercial space activities. The article included an initial list of industry sectors it plans to include in its analysis, based on a space economy definition promulgated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, but added it is seeking input on how to tailor that list.

A number of estimates exist on the size of the space economy, which vary depending on what is included. A May 2019 report prepared for the Satellite Industry Association (SIA) by Bryce Space and Technology estimated the global space economy to be $360 billion, of which the satellite industry accounted for $277 billion and the rest primarily by government space budgets. The Space Foundation, in its annual Space Report published in July 2019, estimated the global space economy to be nearly $415 billion in 2018. The two reports also differed in estimated growth: the SIA report saw growth of 3% in 2018, versus 8% in the Space Foundation report.

Those estimates, and projections for future growth, have led some to predict the space economy, however it is defined, to be worth at least $1 trillion within 20 years. U.S. government officials, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, have frequently talked about efforts to create a trillion-dollar space economy.

However, others have criticized both the current estimates of the size of the space economy and its growth projections. At a June 2019 meeting of the Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing in Washington, Bhavya Lal of the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) argued that studies like those published by SIA and the Space Foundation may significantly overestimate the size of the space economy.

Lal said those studies suffer several problems, from double-counting between categories to including products and services not directly related to space. By STPI’s estimate, removing the double-counting and unrelated revenues can cut the estimated size of the space economy in half.

Lal also questioned growth rates of as high as 11% per year needed to achieve the trillion-dollar goal by 2040. “They don’t seem consistent with some of the trends that we are seeing,” she said, noting much smaller growth rates, particularly in the SIA report, as well as a dependence on markets yet to emerge, like space tourism and point-to-point suborbital travel.

Speaking at the International Space Development Conference later that month, Patrick Sullivan, deputy director of the Office of Space Commerce, acknowledged the need for better data about the size of the space economy. “We are working really closely with a number of bureaus about really analyzing what the value is,” he said. “If it’s going to help advance a policy perspective, we’d love to either develop or get the data from the private sector.”

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...