Op-ed | The space industry: A closer look at the new ecosystem

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“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Those immortal words belong to history. But in the long story of human evolution, 50 years is only the blink of an eye, hardly of import when measured against the rhythm of civilizations.

The expanding “bubble” of human activities in space. The wave front, now extending to the moon and, hopefully, beyond, represents the highest risk. As that risk becomes more understood and foundational knowledge is spread, the private sector becomes more independently and innovatively engaged. At some point, government becomes merely one actor in the ecosystem, alongside a healthy commercial economy—this is the “normalization” phase. Graphic courtesy Sandra Magnus

Fifty years is significant when measured in a human life span, affecting our ability to appreciate events; immersed in the day to day struggle of “doing” we easily can lose sight of the path we travel. Since Sputnik first launched and man set foot on the moon, the changes, evolution and expansion of human activities in space has been rapid and momentous. It is important to understand the trajectory we are on as we tackle the challenges in front of us and create our future.

The dynamic setting our course is the fundamental expansion of human experience, both in terms of actual “humans” and surrogate devices, our amazing exploration machines, off the planet and out into our solar system and the greater universe around us. Those who speak of space as the “new frontier” are touching upon the correct paradigm. Initially, the sole provenance of governments, the only entities that could afford to invest in complex, risky endeavors that had no basis in profit generation, space was unchartered territory.

As experience, knowledge and technological innovation amassed and quickly disseminated throughout the globe, the breadth and depth of space activities also expanded.

Today, in a relatively few decades, our “bubble of human experience” now encompasses a rich ecosystem of government entities, commercial/private sector actors and even areas of academia.

The boundary of the “new frontier,” once defined by merely escaping the planet, is being extended further outward beyond low Earth orbit.

But instead of journeying alone, as was necessary in the early years, government activities can be augmented by a wide array of existing and growing capabilities being developed in the private sector.

In low Earth orbit, we are striving to create an economic zone of activity that is not reliant solely on a government customer but is just one of many consumers.

This natural transition, as our frontier expands away from Earth, where low Earth orbit is no longer the single domain of government, but one where private enterprise is healthy and robust, is a daunting task. Times of transition always are—but it is one that we can achieve if we work collaboratively and comprehensively through the issues as a community.

But the definition of the “community” must expand. Those of us in the space industry have to readjust our thoughts about what encompasses the space industry. Just like the first pioneers who crossed the western plains of the United States looking for new places to settle, space for us has been an alien place; something we have had to wrestle, conquer, and with great fortitude plan to engage with.

However, for those multitudes that followed that first wave of pioneers across the vast western United States., traveling on established wagon tracks, stopping in small outposts for directions, provisions and a slice of semi-civilization, the trip, while certainly challenging and not without risk, was if not quite “normal,” certainly not exotic. And that is the same shift taking place in human engagement in space, especially with respect to low Earth orbit.

It is time for us, the traditional space community, to recognize that a wider community has shed the mythology and thinks about space as merely another place to do business; as an environment similar to a desert, the ocean, a large city, where people want to come and do “something.” It’s hard to make such a huge mental shift for those of us still wrestling with the challenges of the frontier beyond low Earth orbit that remain the same, but the shift that is already taking place not only in the communities around us but also in the space workforce.

There are people entering the workforce today for whom it is “normal” that people live and work in space on a full-time basis. Think about that—it is taken for granted that people live and work in space. Which such a formative norm, the leap to expanding the type and number of people who live and work in space, expanding the use of space, expanding the breadth of people who want to take advantage of space is not really a “giant leap for mankind” but just another small step for man.

That is not to dismiss the fact that space is still very risky nor that we still have much to learn, but simply that the mental paradigm has shifted and will continue to move inexorably forward out into the solar system.

Consequently, it is not surprising, given the dynamic process of expansion occurring that today a broader group of people, outside of the traditional space community, have expressed interest, made investments, and are exploring ways to utilize space. It is actually quite astounding the amount of creative energy targeted at “space” for the last decade.

New entrants are proposing everything from space hotels, human transportation systems, man-tended laboratories, in-space manufacturing, energy harvesting, asteroid mining, fueling depots, Earth imagery, small satellite constellation-based internet services and the list goes on.

Accompanying the proposals is a separate but related collection of companies created to offer services from communication technologies, sensor platforms, training programs, propulsion technologies, specialized launch services and so on; another huge ecosystem of entrepreneurial activity. Not to be outdone, traditional space companies are also innovating — leveraging years of experience to take advantage of the broad interest that has erupted around “space.” Clearly not every project or idea will be successful, and many will likely underestimate the risks, both financial and technological, after all we all know that space is “hard,” but the momentum of human expansion is taking us into this new frontier and thus we will go.

Various advanced space technology concepts are represented in this NASA illustration.

The question then becomes how to manage the evolving of such a diverse, dynamic ecosystem of space participants to achieve our collective goals? In addition to the traditional space community of engineers, scientists, technicians, and government agents we must add lawyers, entrepreneurs, investors of all stripes, insurance companies, standards organizations, university professors and their students, small business, artists, and entertainers, just to name a few.

In the past the space industry has been accused of “talking to itself” and now we have to learn how to reach out and engage with a much more diverse community with a myriad different agendas, concerns and motivations. Complicating the situation is the fact that the transition discussed here is taking place globally. Thus, the need for constant communication and open discourse becomes vital.

There are a multitude of topics that require discussion, coordination and education across the burgeoning ecosystem that include: identifying appropriate regulations and standards, establishing liability and applicable tenets of space law, how to develop business plans and secure funding, how to manage the space environment given increased activity, defining rules of conduct on orbit for both people and machines, the integration of air and space traffic into a manageable global system, and the dynamics of supply and demand in a frontier environment are just a few.

To complicate matters even further, all of the above issues are interwoven and cannot readily be addressed in total isolation.

The time is ripe for a platform which convenes the entire global ecosystem, not just the Aerospace industry, with the aim of facilitating the necessary conversations, targeting outcomes and tracking resolution of critical issues. Working together, coherently as a broad community of interest in space, we can succeed.


Sandra Magnus is the deputy director for engineering within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering and is a guiding coalition member of Ascend. She was formerly the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and served in the NASA Astronaut Corps. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 7, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.