The universe has had a magnetic attraction throughout human history. ‘Upon earth, in the midst of the darkest night, light never abdicates its functions altogether,’ Jules Verne once wrote. If he had seen the fascinating images sent back by Nasa’s Perseverance rover from Mars capturing the full grandeur of the cosmic light show, his already vivid imagination would have stretched even further. Mars is the last frontier of an industry that, by definition, knows no boundaries – at least on paper.
In reality, the space industry has been the exclusive preserve of a handful of countries with deep pockets, cutting-edge technology and political ambition. No longer. While China’s rover Zhurong joined Nasa’s Perseverance on Mars in May, the list of countries with a civil space programme grows by the day. Latin American countries came together to create a regional space agency in 2020; the Philippines launched its space programme in 2019, Australia and Turkey one year earlier. Overall, about 72 countries have active space agencies, which they set up mostly for research and telecommunications purposes.
But the greatest revolution is unfolding in the private sector. The global space economy is valued at $366bn. Government programmes make up only 26% of it; the remaining 74% is commercial and mostly tied to the satellite value chain. Booming demand for data collection and telecommunications services has spurred technological advances that sharply reduce the cost of putting a satellite in orbit. The industry is now expected to launch about 990 satellites per year through 2028, some of them no bigger than a toaster. Locations across the globe are vying to become a gateway for this multitude of satellites to reach their orbit, more often than not a low orbit. There are nine proposed spaceports in the US, another seven in the UK, three in Australia, two in Indonesia and many others across the globe.
Frankly, many of them have put the cart before the horse. At the moment, it is the usual suspects that account for the lion’s share of commercial launches. Familiar names in the space industry since the Cold War like the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan have successfully transitioned to commercial launches. The same applies to its Cold War nemesis, Cape Canaveral, Florida, which is also hosting a launchpad developed by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.
However, with the space economy expected to treble in value in the next 20 years, demand is picking up and a new generation of rocket companies such as Phantom Space are scrambling to secure access to spaceports.
Besides, the likes of Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have resuscitated a fantasy as old as humanity: space travel. Forget the meticulous training of the first astronauts. Following three days of training, Mr Bezos plans to board Blue Origin’s first-ever crewed flight on July 20. Mr Musk’s SpaceX wants to follow suit by the end of 2020. Mr Branson’s Virgin Galactic went as far as forecasting 400 trips per year generating $1bn in revenues per spaceport: no timeline was given.
We are at the dawn of a new space age. Although uncertainties abound, nanosatellites and wealthy tourists desperate for a zero-gravity experience may soon share the cosmos. While we look up in awe, it’s the development this triggers on Earth that will have the deeper impact.
This article first appeared in the June/July print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.