In total, the global space economy is worth over $400 billion. The big banks have turned their heads and licked their lips, and word on Wall Street is that space will blossom into a multi-trillion-dollar-industry within the next 10-20 years.
The flood of private capital into this exotic sector over the last decade is both a cause for celebration and for concern to many analysts who welcome the creative power of profit-driven actors while recognizing the need for safety standards and regulations.
“In prior eras, innovation in space was largely pushed and funded by the government,” says Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project and Defense Budget Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Now, it’s private companies that are pushing into new space architectures, new missions, new technologies. That’s good; the government just has to figure out how to harness it.”
Private companies have been involved in space since the beginning, but their role has since changed dramatically. While in the early Space Age, corporations like Boeing and IBM, for which space was more of a side-gig, took on contracts for NASA, today a new array of players like SpaceX and Blue Origin are demonstrating the viability of business models based primarily if not exclusively on expanding humanity’s reach into the final frontier.
NASA has also surrendered much of its turf to the private sector, resulting in a kind of “creeping commercialization.” Rather than building products and selling them to the government, firms like SpaceX hold onto their property and sell services instead. Thus, in 2012 Musk’s Dragon became the first private spacecraft to dock with the ISS, and this month his Crew Dragon capsule became the first to carry astronauts into orbit.
These developments are molding a space economy in which not just governments but businesses and individuals are the consumers, and the former is increasingly left out of the picture.
“I totally think that’s the way of the future,” says Bidushi Bhattacharya, ex-NASA scientist and CEO and founder of AstroHub. “It’s inevitable, because we’re becoming more and more dependent on space-based technology.”
The past decade saw the space industry get kicked into overdrive, and regulators will need to stay one step ahead of a fast-evolving landscape if they are to prevent abuse from corporations motivated solely by short-term profits. “Capitalism is essentially based on greed,” says Ram Jakhu, associate professor of law at McGill University and former director at the Institute of Air and Space Law. “The problem with greed is that there’s no limit. Once it goes beyond a certain point, governments step in. So, in the next five or ten years, you will see a lot of things change.”
One area where protections are needed is the environment. Companies are launching such a massive quantity of satellites into orbit that the term “mega-constellation” has been coined to describe them. SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are the prime example.
“There’s so many of them that they’re affecting astronomical observations,” says Bhattacharya. “When you look up there with a telescope, oftentimes the satellites streak across your field of view. I wouldn’t have thought of this as an issue five years ago, but it is now.”