Commercial Space and Its Role in the World Today: an Expert View
Russian cosmist philosophers of the 19th century believed not only that humankind’s future lay in the stars; they said that we were destined to reach beyond our planet like a child eventually leaves the cradle. What looked like a pipedream in the coal and steam world, led to the launch of the first human being into space back in 1961. Since then, lots of things have happened: a space race; collapse of the bipolar world that ended it; and the emergence of commercial space flights that defied the space monopoly governments used to have.
Still, commercial space exploration is yet nascent. Its promise is huge, yet it has lots of unresolved problems. What should the commercialization of space be like? How should spacebound companies compete, given that outer space is like the high seas, at least in legal sense? How should it be regulated, considering that space law was devised as a gamebook for two superpowers, not privately-run companies? What about the increasing space militarization that worried the U.S. government to the extent of creating a separate branch of the military to handle it?
Earlier, we’ve learned about a space company called Axiom Space developing the first commercial space station that will be launched into low-Earth orbit over the next decade, and made an article about it. Considering the expertise of those people, we decided to address our questions to Amir Blachman, Vice President for Strategic Development at Axiom Space.
How Outer Space Becomes a Commercial Domain
The reason for commercialization of space can’t be narrowed down to mere reduction of spaceflight costs. While it has indeed seen some decline in cost, it still remains high enough to drive away most of those who would have engaged in it under different financial circumstances. Thus, according to a study by NASA Ames Research Center’s Harry W. Jones, the cost of launching objects to low-earth orbit dropped from $1 million per kilogram to $1,400 per kilogram over the years of human presence in space.
The real reason behind this emerging trend possibly lies in the realization that the needs of humankind in space cannot be catered to solely by government-backed programs and organizations that pursue their own agendas that do not necessarily coincide with popular or commercial needs of other parties.
Speaking about how Axiom Space came to be, Amir Blachman recalls:
“At the time there was an ongoing discussion about the retirement of the International Space Station, so it became quite clear to [Axiom founders] that the next natural evolution is a commercial space station and they knew that with their human space-tech management experience and their ISS management experience they were uniquely capable of building a commercial space station. And so that was the origin of the business.”
Back in the 19th century, the U.S. government decided to abandon any attempts to regulate the emerging railroads market, which arguably resulted in a thriving industry. However, when the government decided to get back in the game in early 20th century, the industry started suffering from excessive regulations and eventually shrank. While this story might be a great parable for the fans of extreme economic liberalism, it also may serve as a plausible example of natural evolution of major technological endeavors in terms of their private status and their interaction with the government.
Mr. Blachman believes that commercialization of space isn’t only natural for the industry, it’s actually something that would benefit national governments as well.
“Today one of the reasons that government pushes for research to happen on the ISS is to demonstrate the necessary utilization of such an expensive asset and to give justification to its continuous existence. The demand side of space is growing and it’s going to significantly outpace any attrition that would come from government not having to prove out that need, that justification for the government-owned platform. I’m very confident that we’ll see an increasing demand, not a decreasing demand, as the station services are commercialized,” he notes.
However, regardless of the actual practical use for commercial spaceflight, it has to draw funds in order to evolve and become successful and sustainable. Most importantly, though, Mr. Blachman suggests that profiting from commercial use of space does not necessarily mean that the scientific value of such work would be driven to the background. On the contrary, he argues, profits and scientific advancement might be a perfect pair.
“There are six revenue sources: the first is national astronauts, or astronauts sent up by their country’s space agency; the second is private astronauts, so they are individuals who pay for their own way to space or people who are sponsored by companies; the third revenue stream is research; the fourth revenue stream is manufacturing; the fifth revenue stream is deep space exploration systems demonstration. The sixth revenue stream is advertising and outreach,” Mr. Blachman says.
Of course, having national governments pay for launching their astronauts to the low-earth orbit is a great stream of revenue, considering not every country willing to do so has technical opportunities like their own launch areas. Space tourism also has great promise, especially considering the serious cheapening of launches over time mentioned above. Yet, what is not obvious is the scientific and commercial value behind demonstrating deep space exploration systems. If a company, say, SpaceX, wishes to launch a crewed vessel to Mars, they need to be sure that life support or guidance navigation systems would work properly. However, such systems cannot be thoroughly tested down on Earth thanks to its inherent physical properties like gravitation. In space, where only microgravity is present, substances tend to behave differently: as such, life support systems consist of multi-phase systems in three different states (solid, liquid, gas). Testing systems in microgravity has both commercial and scientific value as it, on one hand, helps SpaceX ensure their systems work as intended and are unlikely to fail during a long journey to another planet, while also driving forward the technological perfection of such systems.
As for advertising in conjunction with commercial space use, Mr. Blachman believes there’s great room for profit-making as well, as exemplified by Axiom Space’s business intentions.
Advertising splits up in a few areas, Mr. Blachman believes. According to him, one is those areas is people that are doing work on station. For example, if somebody is pulling fiber optics or manufacturing alloys on station and the company sponsoring that wants to advertise themselves, they can do that as part of their work on station. Another is branding partnerships, such as Axiom’s partnership with Philippe Starck for design of components of the interior of the Axiom Station’s crew quarters, and also branding partnerships for any other number of reasons, whether it’s for food, electronics, or materials, those are all natural branding partnerships.
“And lastly, and quite important, on the outreach front is education. This dovetails with the national astronaut work and private astronaut work. One of the most important effects of human spaceflight is the inspiration of the next generation of engineers, scientists, artists, and mathematicians. We want to make sure that the activity on ISS, and later on Axiom Station, is broadly advertised to youth, to people who are in elementary school, in high school, or college, to promote a more technically qualified workforce around the world,” Mr. Blachman elaborates.
Still, it seems that successful commercialization of space would prompt different companies to work together in order to achieve the desired result.
“Rocket manufacturing, for example, is the railroad, and without it we can’t get to space. What we’re building is the real estate in space. So what’s more important: the railroad or the real estate when you get there? Well, you can’t have one without the other,” Mr. Blachman explains.
While launching vessels into space has proved to be a large-scale and profitable business, there are other promising areas of commercial space use that may bring their operators literally astronomical profits, like space mining. It’s been discussed for a while, and its potential implications for the Earth’s economy can be game-changing, considering the amounts of precious metals and other valuable substances found on asteroids. For now, the only real problem is to actually get to the asteroids, excavate the desired matter, and somehow dispose of it.
“Space mining is going to serve two purposes: one is space mining for resources that are to be used for applications back on Earth, and the other is space mining for materials that will be utilized in space,” Mr. Blachman says.
“For example, precious metals or industrial metals can be mined in space and brought back for use on Earth, but there are also resources in space such as hydrogen, oxygen, and certain metals that can be used for fuel, life support, and for the construction of structures in space. The capability does not exist yet, but companies are investing in developing it. It is far more cost-effective to test these capabilities in Low Earth Orbit than further out, and this is another factor driving demand for a testing platform in LEO.”
While cooperation seems to be paramount for successful space exploration, commercialization of space, just like any other profitable ventures, inevitably brings up the question of competition.
Commercial Competition in Space
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said that competition is worth more to society than it costs. Until recently, the only major competition in terms of space was the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, which, while having political issues on top of those economical, still proved the old Supreme Court Justice right by bringing human beings into space (USSR) and then landing them on the Moon (USA), so far the only extraterrestrial object where our species has ever set foot.
Yet, after that, the space race focused more on satellites and robotics as further exploration of our closest cosmic vicinity proved economically challenging even for the world’s two superpowers. That is not the case for private companies, though, who don’t have any political agendas on their minds, and are mostly focused on making profits along with achieving scientific advancement. Still, for decades after we landed on the Moon, launching people to space remained in the purview of governments.
That is not the case today, when private companies like SpaceX have delivered a reliable and relatively cheap technology capable of carrying out space launches for much less money than aging Russian rockets, obsolete shuttles, or the Antares–Cygnus complex.
Still, even though space-related operations might be cheaper than before, it’s still too expensive for smaller companies to make it to this emerging market, so it’s quite likely that they will be controlled by a handful of major companies, or even corporations. This, in turn, brings up the question of fair competition and other anti-monopoly measures that would seek to thwart any attempts by a company to single-handedly control the entire space market.
“I think antitrust legislation should and will be applied to the space business just as it is applied to any other business — with the same tests of competitive access. Advancement would be better served by focusing on how to nurture demand rather than on fretting over antitrust,” Mr. Blachman believes.
Still, antitrust legislation isn’t by far the only legislation that private space exploration would need.
Regulating Commercial Space
Right now, the rules for space behavior are generalized, as they were created at a time when private companies had limited involvement in outer space, but two superpowers were. The Outer Space Treaty, the Moon Agreement, or the Liability Convention are still in effect, but there’s a chance some of them would be revised, or some new international agreements would replace them over time. However, there’s also a possibility that future detailed guidelines for private operations in space won’t supersede those agreements thanks to the inherent conservatism of jurisprudence, but would actually supplement them in such a way as to bring the legal framework in line with the actual needs of the world.
“Space law will continue to develop, but the basic regulation about the use of space and the intention of the use of space is already there,” says Mr. Blachman. “There is really quite a well-defined framework for the use of space already, now law needs to evolve around the application of the existing treaties’ tenets.”
However, just like with any major endeavor, it’s the cooperation between entities and the government that would play the crucial role in moving the progress forward.
“For example, at Axiom Space we want to have sufficient overlap between the ISS final years and the first years of our commercial station. For that to happen and for other reasons that support commercialization such as maintaining the momentum of commercial use of LEO, it’s important that NASA and its partner agencies move quickly to enable the progress of ISS’s commercial successor. And that means working with us and the other commercial entities to plan for the transition, to provide resources, such as a port connection to the ISS. Those are the things government and its agencies need to move on quickly,” notes Mr. Blachman.
So, as it seems, regulation and agency commitment might drive businesses forward, but it would take businesses to drive forward the regulation. Fortunately, as it seems, this process is already underway.
Militarization of Outer Space
Another important issue related to the future fates of outer space is its militarization. While the military use of celestial bodies is forbidden by numerous international treaties, they don’t mention a thing about space itself. As most of those treaties have been created back in the pinnacle days of the Cold War, they were drawn along the compromise lines found between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. However, as the Soviet Union is no longer in existence, and governments no longer have a space monopoly, which, though unofficially, they certainly had back in the day, the issue of space militarization also concerns commercial companies who wish to have their objects and vehicles up there. If outer space is the new sea, the interaction between military and merchant vessels becomes important again, so the question of space militarization is never off the table, even when we speak in terms of peaceful commercial exploration.
Thus, the recent announcement about the Space Force made by the Trump administration has caused a noticeable turmoil in the media. However, while fantasies go well beyond realistic patterns and draw a picture where the space force bears uncanny resemblance to the imperial stormtroopers from Star Wars, the reality might be very different from that.
“This is just the repackaging of work that’s already going on. I don’t think we’ll see much additional or different activity in space because of the reorganization. What we’re more likely to see is changes in decision making hierarchies, and in technology and service procurement processes. Military side procurement now happens by a combination of the Air Force, intelligence community and other organizations, it’s now going to be somewhat more centralized. Even that is still going to be quite intertwined with other military branches. It’s kind of inextricable. You can’t have a tactical intelligence system or a strategic planning system making acquisitions without deep input from the branches that end up using it. So, I don’t think we’ll see a huge difference in the actual activity going on in space because of this. I think what you’ll see is changes to structure in the decision-making on Earth,” says Mr. Blachman.
However, while this doesn’t seem to be such a big deal, at least hardly a Death Star-level one, perception-wise, it might be something completely different.
“The psychological problem with the announcement of a Space Force is that it accelerates the competition between nations for the militarization of space. Hopefully, countries outside the US will understand that this is more of an administrative reorganization than a call for battleships in orbit. But it’s almost impossible to make an announcement stating that we’re going to set up a new branch of the military and not through that incentivize other countries to accelerate their militarization of space,” Mr. Blachman elaborates.
This issue obviously goes well beyond just space law questions and delves straight into the realms of so-called post-truth era, where the quill is not only mightier than the sword, it might be mightier than the nuclear missile. The perceived effect might have greater importance than the actual one.
“The attempt here, essentially, is to maintain military superiority in space and to make more efficient procurement processes for everything associated with use of space. Whether or not those two elements will be accomplished by establishing the Space Force is yet to be determined,” Mr. Blachman concludes.
That said, it’s obvious that military and commercial use of space could go hand in hand, for good or ill. After all, underlying them are the same technologies, and their interaction in some sense is quite likely.
“The same technologies that are developed to refuel or service satellites can be used for grappling onto an enemy country’s satellite and disabling it. Now imagine that countries are developing this technology to service satellites but their commercial developers will not be permitted to use those because it is known that the technology can also be used for military purpose to knock out a satellite,” says Mr. Blachman.
So, as it usually happens, only time will tell which shape this cooperation might take, if any.
The Future of Commercial Space Exploitation
As technology progresses and the price of launching mass to space gets increasingly lower, we are getting closer to the point where going to space won’t be the job of highly-trained and selected astronauts and the privilege of those rich enough to afford it as a leisure. Casual spaceflights or vacation on the moon are still far off, yet they sound less and less fantastic, at least according to Mr. Blachman.
“Private commercial spaceflight will start occurring on a regular basis in the beginning–middle of 2020. That’s a year and a half from now, so we’re not talking about 20–30 years out, it is around the corner. Depending on what you call ‘casual’. People going up every month, every two weeks, every day, that pace is going to pick up gradually, consistently over the next two decades, until living and working in space will be commonplace, and not just for professional astronauts,” he believes.
The biggest part of our progress towards space is obviously the technology. Technology is what pushed the first artificial objects and then the first humans into the orbit. Better engines, more efficient fuels, and lighter materials allowed humans to reach further. But the costs of such technological marvels as Saturn rockets or the Space Shuttle are astronomical (no pun intended). Mr. Blachman, as well as many other professionals engaged in this industry are counting very much on reusability as a way to cut costs and eliminate hiatus needed to manufacture and assemble new pieces of expendable spacecrafts.
“Today, SpaceX, for example, has its first stage reusable. That saves significant cost — and their capsule is reusable. Today, the middle part of the rocket, the second stage, is not reusable, but we’ll get to a point where either the second stage is reusable or get to a rocket that utilizes a single stage to orbit, where the entire rocket is reusable. Any of those things can bring the launch costs down by tens of millions of dollars,” he says. “That’s what’s going to drive a broader demand in the market, so when it costs $55 million for a private astronaut to get to space today, and you see that cost drop down even just to half, just to mid-20 millions, that’s already going to drive a much bigger market. But in 20-25 years from now, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw the costs to get to space drop down to the $1 million level per person, per seat, per mission. And after that, potentially even less.”
Evidently, in order to get to that scenario it is important to polish our technology. It is also important have the incentive for both governmental and non-governmental operators to get higher, safer, and cheaper.
“What’s driving it is a combination of research towards deep space missions, it’s the colonization of the Moon and later colonization of Mars, it’s more and more robust work in low earth orbit, that’s the nearest-term driver. You take all those together along with plans, like ULA’s Cislunar 1000 and some of these other programs that talk about many, many people in space simultaneously within two-three decades, that drive is having private astronauts, and commercial astronauts, and governmental astronauts going to space on a weekly basis within two and a half to three decades timeframe,“ Mr. Blachman notes.
Ultimately, we will eventually achieve everything we need to make space travel just a bit more cumbersome than travelling by an airplane. The way might be long, but some of us may even see it happening in their lifetimes. Nobody knows for sure how will it look like, but we all have our right to dream. And some of us have the actual experience required to make an educated guess.
“At that point point in time we’ll start seeing “casual space travel” be something that becomes a weekly occurrence. I think it will take time. If I was to lay it out on a timeline we’ll probably see batches of private astronauts going up every six months within a year and a half to two years from now. We’ll see people going up every two or three weeks within ten years from now. And we’ll probably see private astronauts going up on a daily basis within 25-30 years from now,” remarks Mr. Blachman.
This seems quite a pleasant prospect, yet, even according to the most optimistic predictions, there’s a long way to go.
Ultimately, space will become much closer. It will be something akin to the seas and the sky we’ve managed to use to our benefit. Of course, there is still a lot to do before we get there, but the solid foundation is already in place. Private operators are already launching their rigs into orbit, the first space tourists have already visited low-Earth orbit and got back safely to share their experiences, and, after all, there are dozens of satellites out there already generating revenue for their owners while making our daily lives better.
Conceptually, humanity’s to-do list isn’t as overwhelming as it had been decades ago. We would need better tech, but cheaper reusable rockets already fly there and back again, while the ISS proves that we can sustain human life in the unearthly conditions of microgravity, harsh cosmic radiation, solar wind, and the freezing vacuum of space. Of course, we would need proper laws to regulate extraterrestrial business, but the ones we have for terrestrial activities, whether for taxation, antitrust control, or resource extraction, can be augmented and amended to properly function up there as well, while the fundamental space-related treaties are already in place. The same goes for the material incentives for businesses as the opportunities for commercial operations in orbit and beyond are already understood and in some cases even seized.
The only thing left in limbo is our own willingness to work together and keep our intentions peaceful while making humans a truly multiplanetary species.