new frontier: Commercial spaceflight and its impact

Date 2.4.2024

In an era where the final frontier seems closer than ever, the dialogue around space exploration is rapidly evolving. Gone are the days when space travel was the sole purview of national governments and their extensively funded agencies. Today, we stand at the precipice of a new age, one marked by the rise of commercial space ventures and the democratization of access to the cosmos. This seismic shift brings with it a host of questions about the future of aerospace, the role of private enterprises, and the impact on scientific discovery and human ambition. As we navigate these uncharted territories, who better to guide our understanding than Andrew Feustel? After a 23 year career with NASA, Feustel brings his extensive experience from his time as a distinguished astronaut with multiple missions under his belt. Now working with Vast Space, the Canadian Space Mining Corporation, Purdue University, and VIDA Carbon, Feustel offers a unique perspective on the developments in space exploration. Having witnessed the evolution of space efforts first-hand, his insights are poised to shed light on a subject close to his heart and expertise.

What does the growing commercialization of space mean for the aerospace industry, and what are the primary challenges and opportunities it presents? Let’s delve into Feustel’s exclusive insights for ACE magazine on this pivotal issue.

 

“The space sector has always been growing. In the past, and in the present, the space sector grows at the pace of government willingness to support NASA initiatives.  Historically this money has gone to tenant prime contractors.  I mention NASA, specifically because many sovereign nation space programs follow the lead (or mimic the lead) of NASA initiatives, especially those related to human space flight.

And for other non-human programs, many sovereign nation space activities are tied to supporting NASA science projects and hardware. Human technology is finally catching up with our desires and intentions as a space faring species. Ever since the very first discoveries of distant planets and galaxies, and science fiction stories have emerged, humans have had a desire to be there, to go there, to experience those worlds.  Now, with the rapid development of private industry providers, there are multiple launch platforms that allow access to space, including human-rated spacecraft.  Recognition is of course given to SpaceX for their pioneering work in development of the first new human rated capsule to come along since the space shuttle in 1981 (the Chinese also achieved this feat, though one could argue that their technology is largely based on the Soyuz design).

Without access to a company like SpaceX, the United States would have faced a continuing gap in human access to space following the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. Following on the SpaceX Dragon work, other private non-government organizations have built, certified, and flown humans in sub-orbital space. This capability was simply not possible two decades ago. But human space exploration is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to space exploration. NASA, and its partners, as well as China, have continued to push the boundaries of technology for the purpose of expanding our knowledge and reach into and past low earth orbit.The growth of space commercialization has always existed. We humans started small, learning first how to build basic rockets, and now we send telescopes to distant places and satellites across our galaxy to discover and learn.  The difference now is that we can do it faster and cheaper and better.  And remember, we don’t actually send the money to space, we spend the money on earth on hardware, services, and salaries in order to build and operate spacecraft.Starlink, Artemis, Moon to Mars, Nuclear Power and Propulsion, ISRU, Comm LEO, James Webb, Optical Communication, Private Astronaut Missions, Space Tourism, Starship, Perseverance Rover, Parker Solar Probe,  – I’ll stop the list here for brevity and apologize for those I have omitted.

All of these projects and programs are evidence of the rapid growth of the space sector. This growing commercialization of space is impacting the aerospace industry in ways not witnessed in the history of our species. New companies are starting up at a blistering pace growing to nearly 1000 employees in less than 1-2 years. This rapid growth draws professionals from all technology sectors. While pulling largely from STEM fields, all professional services are needed to support everything from IT to security to government affairs and health and safety.  Estimates exist that show space sector growth was over $200 billion in the past decade and heading toward $1 trillion by 2030. I personally don’t think we can begin to estimate the valuation in this sector in the coming decades.  Now is the time when the momentum has taken over.    Having said all of that, and promoting the projected growth and seemingly unstoppable development in this sector, we still need to apply some pragmatic assessment of realities and make sure that we have the right expectations. As I had stated earlier, historically, as now, all of the developments in space exploration have been driven largely by NASA initiatives. Period.

Right now NASA has two fundamental stated mandates: 1) to enable a Low Earth Orbit space economy and 2) to be a leader to promote the development of CIS-Lunar space and economy.  These are the reasons NASA has focused so clearly on developing and awarding service contracts for many of the programs related to human space exploration.  This allows NASA to provide the critical seed funding and resource sharing to help these companies remain viable.  Alluding back to SpaceX and the reliance on NASA – SpaceX would not have achieved the success or development of the Cargo and Crew Dragon spacecraft had it not been for the investment of NASA and the US Government. None of the development will happen if NASA and the US do not continue to lead the free world in the exploration of space. And from the U.S. Office of Science and Technology (November 2022): “U.S. science and technology leadership in Cislunar space will support the responsible, peaceful, and sustainable exploration and use of Cislunar space, including the Moon, by all spacefaring nations and entities.

As we begin our next steps into space, the United States will work collaboratively with allies, international partners, and private entities to set the pace and direction of growing Cislunar activities—to foster scientific discovery, economic development, and international cooperation that reflects our shared values.”The essential difference now is for the first time in history, we humans have a real opportunity to create our own self-perpetuating space economy. We finally have the human and hardware capital, as well as the financial resources to build spacecraft in absence of government funding. It is likely that each private company has a strong desire to sell space-based services to sovereign nation governments as anchor tenants, but the possibility exists for each company to purchase and provide services to each other…this is the perpetual space economy machine. The bottom line is that I am excited…and you should be too. There is a lot of space in space (hence the name). We all have work to do, so let’s go and see what is out there!”

Written by: A. J. “Drew” Feustel, Astronaut
Edited by: Katerina Urbanova
Photo Credit: Annie Mulligan

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