A Gold Race in the XXI century? Space is open for business
The Apollo program was the peak of the Space race, with over 400,000 engineers and scientists working for 11 years to make 12 astronauts land on the Moon. But the program ended in 1972 and many things have changed since then.
Now, our smartphones have 1 million more times the memory and speed than the computers NASA used to land those 12 astronauts on the Moon. Those old computers not only cost $3.5 million each but were also the size of a car. Back in 1972, there were only 187 satellites in orbit, now there are more than 4,000. This connectivity has enabled the development of mobile applications. Thousands of the most popular apps contain location-sharing codes like Facebook, Whatsapp, Uber, Google Maps, Weather apps, and Tripadvisor just to mention a few.
But the most significant change is that Space is now open for business. It’s hard to know exactly when the transition from scientific to commercial activities in Space started, but there are two important events that I believe are significant in the history of modern Space.
The first event was the creation of the American company MirCorp in 2000 by a group of Space enthusiasts disappointed with the cancellation of the Apollo program by Richard Nixon. The company’s mission was to rent the Russian MIR Space Station to send private astronauts using the Russian rockets called Soyuz.
At that time the MIR Space Station was inhabited for many months so MirCorp paid two Russian cosmonauts to do repair work on the station and leave it ready for its first customer, entrepreneur Dennis Tito. Unfortunately, according to MirCorp “additional financing was not forthcoming from the original investors. The political pressure against the project from NASA was both private and public, and the decision was made to end the project”. So in 2001 the MIR Space Station was de-orbited and crashed in the Pacific Ocean. MirCorp’s journey is well captured in the documentary “Orphans of Apollo”.
Although MirCorp was not able to fulfill its mission, it opened a new window of commercial and marketing possibilities using Space infrastructure. This became a precedent for projects undertaken today. For example, the company Space Entertainment Enterprise is currently working with Tom Cruise to build a film studio in space by 2024.
The second event that significantly opened Space for business, was the creation of the Falcon rockets by SpaceX, with the support of NASA’s Commercial Program, which aimed to reduce costs by contracting private companies to access Space, instead of NASA building and operating their rockets
But SpaceX’s success was preceded by “the sheer force of blood and sweat” as some employees remember. In early August of 2008, Elon Musk had three consecutive failed launches, a $100 million personal investment running out, and a company that was the target of public undermining by the most powerful AeroSpace contractors who were protecting their multi-billion dollar interests.
But just 7 weeks after the third failed launch, SpaceX manufactured, integrated, and successfully launched the Falcon1, which was not only the cheapest rocket but also the most sustainable and reliable. To make a comparison, the cost per kilo using the Space Shuttle in 1990 was $65,000, nowadays it is as low as $1,500 per kilo using the Falcon Heavy.
The Space industry today is a collaborative and interdisciplinary field full of business and professional opportunities. Although engineers are still doing most of the heavy lifting, the Industry needs entrepreneurs, farmers, lawyers, doctors, architects, chefs, artists, communicators, and more, to take Space to the next level.
If we want to permanently establish a human presence outside of our planet, we need to replicate at least some of our basic activities. This means we would need architects to design sustainable habitats on the Moon or Mars, and to extend our presence in Space we would need doctors and biologists to study the effects of reproduction in microgravity.
To establish the rules for harmonious coexistence in Space, we would need lawyers who help us establish those rules, not only for social interaction but also for business exchanges. We would need food scientists and chefs to grow and prepare food in Space, nutritionists to come up with the optimal diet for our survival with limited resources. And of course, we would also need art and entertainment, among many other things.
The future is getting closer. Space is now open for business and it needs your skills to decide where we want to go next.