When considering commercial space one thinks of satellites. When one thinks about the intersection of commercial space and consumers one thinks of satellite TV, GPS, broadband over satellite and the like. Thus, it has always been and thus it shall ever be?
The technological base required to conduct space operations was mastered in the 1960s. Operational military satellite programs were going on in the early 1960s, but launch rates today are, in fact, lower now than they were then. What hasn’t changed is that launching satellites is very hard — and launching people even harder.
There always have always been dreamers who talked of all of the wonderful things they could do to “bring space down to Earth.” Their predictions have been gloriously wrong for years, a fact that some blamed on lack of faith. I have always felt that these failures represented the fact that space is a fundamentally difficult endeavor. Privately funded reusable launch ventures such as the Advanced Launch System, the National Launch System, the National Space Plane, VentureStar and Kistler’s K1 all demonstrated that nice viewgraphs and PowerPoint slides do not inevitably lead to success. Even the space shuttle, which really did fly, did not bring the desired benefits.
That is about to change.
It has been clear since the X-prize competition that something is different. Privately funded, privately managed efforts led to results in many ways comparable to the vaunted X-15 rocket plane. Commercial enterprises (Virgin Group for a start) saw this as a signal that there was potentially money to be made in space tourism. Around the turn of the century there were three space tourism conferences where we worried about the “giggle factor” associated with the very name. Things look very different now.
Things look so different in the second decade of the 21st century that NASA is being kicked out of the space transportation business. With the Obama Administration’s efforts to cancel the Ares 1, the world of commercial space suddenly is a new place. Before the first flight of the suborbital space tourism vehicles, the U.S. government has fully embraced the idea of commercial entities being responsible for routine crewed operations between Earth and near-Earth orbit. The industry that was fighting for a sliver of work carrying cargo to the International Space Station now will have primary responsibility for crew transport as well. The tail now will wag the dog. When this decision is combined with the availability of commercial space stations from, at least, Bigelow Aerospace (which has orbited test versions of an inflatable habitat), it is possible to see the outlines of truly commercial space operations.
This does not show that all NASA ever needed to do was get out of the way. I think it reflects the maturation of the general technological enterprise to the point where we can move from the sort of command technology projects that developed the B-2 stealth bomber to the sort of market driven commercial development that has given use commercial aviation as we know it today. Once we set foot on a path of commercially driven space development everything will begin to change. Not only will space tourism become possible, but all of the current commercial use for space will be affected as well.
One of the great paradoxes of the commercial space industry is that it always has been rather technologically conservative. When satellites take years to begin turning a profit their owners must think long term. The satellite must be designed with enough flexibility to follow market demands but not so much as to make it inefficient for its chosen task.
With relatively easy access to space, at relatively low cost, the entire model by which space-based assets are designed may change. Not only will there be consumers in space, but space assets aimed at consumers may change radically (of course many said this about the space shuttle). It remains to be seen if this is a true dawn or another false start, but we have never been closer to a new commercial space paradigm than we as it the wake of the decision to give the commercial launch providers a foot in the future’s door.
Max Engel is and experienced satellite and telecom industry analyst and founder of The North Star Consultancy.
He can be reached at maxengel@thenorthstarconsultancy.