Outer space as a business arena

Outer space as a business arena

In this year June, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first human-crewed lunar landing. Since Mr Gorsky received his anecdotal blessing from Neil Armstrong upon Apollo 11 arrival, half a century passed, and many things changed between the Moon and the Earth. Private capital and private interest became the main trends in space exploration at the beginning of the 21st century. Few new economic sectors emerged into the outer space. If you feel like aspiring astropreneur, you may be interested in reading about some key figures.

The size of the space economy

In 2017 the total market volume of services and products for space exploration was worth $385BN. By 2040, it may well grow up to $1500BN — main sectors: research and development, remote sensing, manufacturing, telecommunications and space tourism.

Venture capitalists invested over $10.2BN between 2012 and 2017 into space exploration. It resulted in a dramatic decrease of launch cost and increased accessibility of space flights and load delivery to low and geostationary orbits. Although space exploration is not cheap, it experiences the initial phase of development with few players and market forces. Most of the private space companies receive financing from billionaires, venture capitalists and governmental subsidies.

Space market forces

Until 2028 main component of many space business plans is the ISS (International Space Station). It will become open for commercial ventures since 2020, said NASA. The entry cost is USD 53M. Businesses may use ISS facilities for manufacturing, research and tourism.

Apart from NASA, there are ESA and ten countries with rocket launch capacity to deliver goods to orbit. Nine countries can launch relatively large satellites. During the last 30 years, few private companies established a firm presence in space. The most famous and prosperous among them is SpaceX with its Falcon 9 rocket. Falcon 9 made 75 successful launches out of 77 since 2010.

SpaceX main business – load delivery to ISS, comsat and remote sensing sat launches to low and geostationary orbits. Maximal load delivered by private rocket to geostationary orbit contained 60 Starlink satellites with total weight of 16800kg. Maximal load delivered by SpaceX to geostationary orbit was Intelsat 35e, weighing 6761kg. SpaceX also engaged in space tourism. Clients are ready to pay from $200K to $250K for a quarter of an hour in zero gravity.

The main technological advance of SpaceX is a reusable heavy rocket. This technology significantly decreased the cost of space market access for other businesses. Governmental agencies do not possess anything like that.

Owing to SpaceX and its reusable rocket, launch cost of a small commercial CubeSat satellite became comparable to the price of a modern gaming computer.

  • USD 50,000 – 90,000 1u CubeSat launch cost
  • USD 180,000 – 250,000 3u CubeSat (3 x 1u) launch cost
  • USD 42000 – Orion X2 personal gaming computer.

SpaceX is not the only company with reusable rockets. Blue Origin owned by John Bezos has reusable passenger module New Sheppard and reusable rocket New Glenn. Both made successful test launches recently, and are ready for commercial loads. True to its motto “Gradatim ferociter”, Blue Origin announced its reusable lunar lander Blue Moon earlier in May this year. NASA expects the company to become its lunar delivery contractor within the next five years.

Space tourism market

Dennis Tito, the 60-year old American entrepreneur, became the first space tourist in human history in April 2001. He spent eight days at ISS and paid circa $20M for the privilege. Since then, six more tourists been there including Guy Lalibert, the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil. However, since ISS been busy with a more interesting business then accommodating guests and its permanent population increased almost twice, the station stopped accepting tourists, and the new market emerged.

Right now, three private companies are competing for selling short zero-gravity experiences: SpaceX with Dragon module, Blue Origin with New Sheppard and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic with SpaceShipTwo system. The latter is not precisely zero-gravity business; it looks more like facility for microgravity experiences tourism and scientific platform for high altitude suborbital flights.

A new player emerged in China. During the preparation of this publication, Chinese private company LinkSpace completed the third test for the reusable rocket. It is the most massive reusable rocket available. China has ten private companies engaged in space launches business. Of the $16.1 billion invested in private space companies and partnerships since 2009, China now represents 3 per cent, with about USD 500M. However, nearly all of China’s private space market investment has come since 2016.

Private space stations

There is no tourism without a hotel business. Orion Span, a privately funded Delaware C corporation backed by venture fund Pear Venture and Berkeley SkyDeck, plans to build Aurora Station. It has the ambition to become the first privately-owned space station with a hotel business in mind. In February this year, the company failed to complete the seed financing round. However, its founders Frank Bunger and David Jarvis are sure about prospects of a private space station hotelier business.

So they are right, since the big players, Russian state company Roscosmos along with RKK “Energia” are going to launch their space hotel to ISS in 2022. Roscosmos project is a VIP module attached to ISS with four 70 cu. ft. bedrooms, lounge, medical and hygienic facilities. ISS will retire in 2024 and will stop business in 2028 or even earlier, so this business plan looks a bit short-sighted. However, with the service offered at USD 40M per week, with a private guide for a spacewalk included, the whole operation is a viable venture. A month in the space hotel will cost a client USD 60M.

Perhaps the first private space station, after all, will function as a factory and research facility on the first place, and accommodation for tourists on the second. Axiom Space plans to build its first station modules at the ISS in 2021, and complete project by 2024. It will accept space tourists for shorter stays then Roscosmos facility, just for 7-10 days. It will outlive ISS in case of success and may well replace it for a while. Axiom Space is the only private company equipped to provide NASA-level astronaut training.

The further development of the space economy will require advances in propulsion technology, high-temperature superconductivity and new materials. Many begin to consider the Outer Space Treaty signed in 1967 by 129 countries not a good framework agreement anymore because the reality of commercial space exploration brought us to many unexpected situations, for which regulation is yet to be developed. The outer space is waiting for its space legal and business consultants. It is very probable that in the nearest future, Oracle Capital Group will offer specialised services for astropreneurs.

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