HOUSTON — As NASA plans to increasingly rely on commercial space companies, those companies are, in turn, looking to build partnerships with other industries to access new markets and technologies.
The inaugural Space Commerce Conference and Exposition, or SpaceCom, here sought to bring together representatives of the space industry with those from several others, including medicine, energy, and maritime. Conference organizers said about a fifth of the more than 1,700 attendees came from non-aerospace industries.
NASA, a conference partner, used the event to provide another reminder of the importance of commercial space activities to the agency’s long-term plans to send humans to Mars. Commercial cargo and crew “has freed up NASA to focus on the farther horizons,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a keynote address at the conference Nov. 17.
Bolden also challenged companies to develop commercial space stations in low Earth orbit to serve as successors to the International Space Station. “Who has a plan for non-NASA astronauts to conduct low Earth orbit operations?” he asked the audience. “It’s a critical question that I’m not sure anyone in this group has been thinking about.”
A key theme of SpaceCom was encouraging interactions between space and other industries. While attendees noted there was a long history of space technology spinoffs aiding other industries, some said the time is right for closer collaboration among companies.
“Instead of talking about spinoffs from space that fundamentally improve the products and services that exist in other industries being used on Earth,” said George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, in a Nov. 17 panel session, “in the future, forward-looking industries are going to be trying to figure out how they can engage in and profit from activities going on in space.”
In some cases, that collaboration is in the form of standard business relationships, taking advantage of developments like reduced launch costs to open up new markets.
“At the end of the day, our mission is to make the market accessible,” said Joshua Brost of SpaceX on the same panel. “We make it possible for people in this room who work in other sectors to figure out what they can do with space capabilities by making it more affordable.”
Others, though, sought deeper ties between space and other industries. “A lot of people have remarked over the years on the similarities between deep water exploration and space exploration,” said Mark Gittleman, executive vice president of Intuitive Machines, a Houston company that works in both the energy and space industries. “The work is truly unforgiving, and the cost of failure is very high.”
Gittleman said in a Nov. 17 speech that a new area of collaboration between the space and energy industries is the use of space technology to improve the economics of oil exploration, a critical issue as the cost of oil has plummeted in the last year. One example he gave was applying spacecraft guidance, control and navigation software to oil drilling equipment to improve its speed and accuracy.
“Even though it might be counterintuitive, given space’s reputation as being expensive, I believe space industry technologies and ideas can help in the era of $50-a-barrel oil,” he said.
“Clearly, space technology has a lot to offer the industry,” said Yuri Sebregts, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Royal Dutch Shell, in a Nov. 19 speech where he mentioned how his company uses satellite remote sensing data to support oil and gas exploration.
However, he said one obstacle to greater collaboration is communication, or the lack of it. “The Earth observing community is still coming to grips with the needs of oil and gas,” he said. “On the other hand, we in the energy industry need to be much more open about our needs.”
It was less clear, though, how those communications would be improved beyond the conference presentations. While Sebregts explained that Shell has an investment arm that funds companies developing relevant technologies, he said he was not aware of any plans to work with the new wave of companies planning constellations of remote sensing satellites to ensure they provide data useful for Shell. He added that Shell has no plans to develop remote sensing satellites of its own.
At the end of the conference Nov. 19, some attendees were optimistic about the potential for improved collaboration between space and other industries. “It’s been great to see the breadth of participation in the conference, with all the different industries being pulled together into one group,” said Carl Walz, director of business development for Oceaneering and a former astronaut. “I saw opportunities where we could collaborate with other folks.”