April 05, 2013
NASA’s Chris Cassidy, newly arrived flight engineer on Expedition 35 to the International Space Station, is at the cutting edge of mankind’s space endeavor as he uses the Minus Eighty-degree Freezer in Japan’s Kibo lab module to store research samples. The work Cassidy and other station astronauts do in the coming decade is likely to shape how far and how fast humans will move into the Solar System. A lot of that work will involve learning how to keep the human body fit and healthy in a hostile environment vastly different from the one 200 mi. below the ISS. But some of it will be looking for the elusive pot of gold that will make space exploration attractive economically as well as scientifically.
Launch costs continue to be the main hurdle to be surmounted before the human economy moves off the planet. But launch is only the first hurdle; there must be other reasons to travel in space beyond the accomplishment itself. In its latest report on the worldwide space industry, the Space Foundation offers more evidence that spaceflight is moving away from a government-based activity driven largely by scientific and political objectives, toward a true, self-sustaining marketplace. It is not there yet, but it appears to be gaining momentum.
In 2012 what the Foundation’s analysts call the “global space economy” grew by almost 7%, to a record $304 billion. “As in previous years, the vast majority of this growth was in the commercial sector, which now constitutes nearly three-quarters of the space economy, with government spending making up the rest,” the 2013 Space Report states.
Almost all of that revenue growth comes from purely terrestrial services that use space to enhance delivery, rather than some extraterrestrial widget, material or drug grown in the space station’s microgravity laboratories. Topping the list is direct-to-home television, which pulled down $89 billion last year, and satellite communications at $21 billion. Add satellite radio ($3.4 billion) and Earth observation ($2.3 billion) and you get to the $116 billion counted for “commercial space products and services” in 2012.
Another $110 billion went for the hardware needed to support that service sector – ground stations and equipment ($101 billion), commercial satellite manufacturing ($5.1 billion, and commercial satellite launch ($2.4 billion). Insurance premiums of $980 million and assorted other sources provided the remainder of what the Space Foundation analysts call commercial infrastructure and support industries. Significantly, deposits for suborbital commercial human spaceflight – space tourists and researchers awaiting travel with Virgin Galactic and XCOR – accounted for some of the remainder -- $10 million. So the private, paying spacefarers who will someday do business in space are beginning to move the revenue needle a little.
For now, though, the kind of “new space” economy that may some day pay for itself is heavily subsidized by the U.S. government, which is using Space Act agreements to let private companies – Boeing, Sierra Nevada, SpaceX – develop the next-generation U.S. human spacecraft with less oversight than in the past. Overall Uncle Sam spent $47.9 billion on space programs in 2012 – including $27.5 billion from the Defense Department and $17.8 billion from NASA for all of its programs. That exceeded the combined space budgets in the rest of the world, which totaled $30.5 billion and included $8.7 billion in “non-U.S. military space.”
The record growth in space spending comes as most of the world experiences tight economic conditions that inhibit funding for government programs. Space Foundation analysts note that “making use of commercial markets and practices” was only one of the strategies used by spacefaring nations to deal with budget crunches, along with “improving mission cost management, engaging in more international partnerships [and] examining options for alternative platforms and flight formations.”
But while governments scramble, the private sector continues to reach out in new directions for space profits. Hong Kong-based AsiaSat has just entered a strategic partnership with GeoMetWatch to host a commercial weather payload on a new geostationary communications satellite it plans to launch in 2016, which could mark another new commercial space app along the lines of Earth observation. Using a hyperspectral sensor under development at Utah State University’s Advanced Weather Systems facility in Logan, Utah, the hosted payload will be designed to provide high-resolution visible and infrared weather imagery and data on temperature, water vapor, pressure, wind and aerosols for sale to forecasters. Ultimately, GeoMetWatch hopes to field a constellation of six of its Sounding & Tracking Observatory for Regional Meteorology (Storm) sensors as piggyback payloads on commercial satcoms around the planet.
Even if the ISS fails to produce a killer app in orbit, it appears that the search for space business continues to gather speed outside the station’s pressurized modules.