Op-ed | A space industry course correction under COVID-19

by and
At least one way we were actually prepared

The space industry is no exception among the industries impacted by COVID-19. In the midst of event cancellations, mission delays, a crash-course in telecommuting, and assurance that the worst is yet to come, whatever business continuity plans have been put in place are now being put to the test of a lifetime.

Few, if any, should expect a stellar grade, and the intransigent inefficiencies and flaws in our current systems will be laid bare.

One inefficiency that should be starkly evident is industry reliance on the main fuel of COVID-19’s rampage: face-to-face meetings, from the daily grind of the office to conferences and events. Despite the ubiquity of the Internet, we have never stopped relying on in-person formats to network, establish trust, and generally conduct business.
Now we must.

The threat is great enough to ransom our lives for the global economy — an offer we cannot refuse. However, a lesser payment is possible: we can change the way we do business.

Among the losses not directly matters of life and death, all the cancelled expos, conferences, and meetings mean that hundreds of thousands of companies have lost the critical early stages of the sales pipeline when products and services are introduced, when professionals meet new clients, when startups debut their innovations, etc. Local economies hosting events, and the massive and essential travel industry, also lose business proportionately–that is to say dramatically.

And yet, thanks to the Internet, the world is more interconnected than ever. At the very moment when we have been separated from one another so profoundly, we are at the height of a virtual coming together that in the long run could be considered even more profound. The strength of this trend is significant enough that the very meetings and events we are cancelling had already been challenged for quite some time. Think back on all of the meetings and events you have attended recently. In many, if not most cases, we were surely asking, “do I really have to go?” Now, the answer is being handed down to us in the categorical negative. But if we are honest with ourselves, we were already thinking “no, probably not.”

Interestingly, a space industry veteran may be the first to have made a study of the idea — all the way back in 1973. Vicky Gan reports on Citylab.com: “The founding document of telecommuting was a 1973 book called The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff. Lead author Jack Nilles, a former NASA engineer, proposed telecommuting as an ‘alternative to transportation’ — and an innovative answer to traffic, sprawl, and scarcity of nonrenewable resources.”

Nilles described a concept that took for granted a physical location, assumed to be a headquarters or an office, at the center of whatever telecommuting might be taking place in whatever form. We still have that sense today, but it is rapidly eroding away. Not only is the concept of an office itself becoming comfortably virtual, but events and marketplaces as well. This is possible because the myriad physical processes required for an event or marketplace to function now have highly efficient virtual parallels. Not only can a marketplace function virtually, but the supply chains in and out of the marketplace can be managed virtually as well.

The time and expense of travel and attendance for business is large and always accompanied by unique risks, not just for special events but daily commuting, too. That is why some of the world’s biggest online industries thrive today. It is in part because they offer a clear and viable alternative to all the hassle, risk, and expense of traveling and meeting. COVID-19’s greatest threat to humankind, the risk of killing one another through contagion, is the one thing our virtual alternatives aren’t threatened by at all. Social distancing is built in.

The online alternatives to physical social contact are eminently viable, but not absolute. They never will be. Travel, meetings, and events will surely reclaim great significance to business. However, the crisis we face now is great enough to legitimately ask, “by how much?”

Rabi Boundi is the co-founder and CEO of Space Impulse, the B2B marketplace for space products and services.  Twitter: @rabiboundi

Peter Rolufs is the Chief Marketing Officer of Space Impulse with a leadership background at multinational corporations including IBM, Northrop Grumman, and Shell, business advocacy organizations, and online marketplace platforms.