The space race heats up again. Commercialization drives this new cycle, fueled by privatization of governmental space projects. Visionaries see vast economic potentials and corporate leaders map out new economic strategies and markets.
Space commercialization ventures may take on any number of forms. Various business models propose to transport passengers, to resupply space stations, to collect space junk, to divert near-Earth asteroid threats, to mine asteroids and the Moon, to colonize the Moon and Mars, to manufacture goods in low-gravity, to construct space-based military defenses, to generate power in space for Earth consumption, to expand communications and information processing, and to explore space further.
The Austin Chamber of Commerce recently launched an exciting public discussion to attract space commercialization ventures to its city. Additionally, the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business launched a Master of Science Program in Space Technology Commercialization this year. Companies already locating resources to Austin, Texas, include Emergent Space Technologies, Deep Space Industries, New Worlds Institute, and Fathom Academy.
But why should space exploration need restarting? Because progress continues to be slow, programs cost too much, spaceflight risks lives and treasure, and efforts return low rewards and benefit too few people. Essentially, space exploration currently is unsustainable. However, exploration and commercialization are two faces of the same enterprise. So, let’s rethink long term commercialization strategies to expand participation and benefits, building on the successes of the past while employing innovation for the future.
“Sustainability” evokes many different ideas among many different people.
Should we emphasize that successful space commercialization requires a mission statement that specifies sustaining long term operations?
Primarily, this would require sustained growth, with reuse and efficiency taking us further down the path. Sustainable space programs also must promote innovation, opportunity and return on investment. Otherwise, what’s the point?
In addition, achieving operational stability would assure continuity over the long term—years, decades, and even generations. To support this aim, continuous training and certification should maintain the availability of highly skilled space workers. This also contributes to the safety and sanity of space personnel. Furthermore, our mission statement should perhaps adopt a unifying ethos to address dedication to mission, esprit de corps and other motivating factors.
A Speculative Model
Consider going back to the drawing board, so to speak, and begin brainstorming new opportunities for sustainable space adventures. We can start with a simple model that has been tossed about for decades among scientists and science fiction writers alike. The idea is to mine asteroids for new materials and then manufacture useful and valuable goods from them.
So what are the main components of this model? First, an asteroid is captured and propelled to Mars orbit. There, the asteroid ore is quarried and smelted, and refined materials are sent to Moon orbit. These packages are delivered to surface factories and finished products are lifted back to Moon orbit, from which they are propelled to Earth orbit. There, they are deorbited to designated depots. Read more about deep space commercialization.
I know you can come up with a better model. This is just a starting point. Sometimes new opportunities show up by examining the connections between the main components. The most fertile areas for new ideas reside in infrastructures, logistics and supply chains, as well as in administration and governance. Once we have a stable model, we can begin to realize plans for development. You are allowed to dream. Neither NASA nor SpaceX have all the answers yet. Your input is needed.
Models are meant to be tested, broken and fixed until they better fit reality. Use the following questions to start rethinking sustainable deep space commercialization ventures.
- How do you get to the asteroids?
- How do you mine the asteroids?
- Where will the space factories be located?
- How do you get raw materials from mines to factories?
- How do you get finished goods from the factories to Earth?
- How do you adjust for fluctuations in market demand?
- How do you manage human factors and social interaction?
- What are the necessary administration and governance structures?
- How do you make the venture pay for itself?
Add your own questions, brainstorm alternative solutions, and develop better models. Also, propose new models for ventures in another area. Share your results.