The first time I can find “space economy” and “trillion dollars” in the same sentence is in 1984, when then-congressman Robert Walker told the Associated Press that a space station in low-Earth orbit could “lead to a half-trillion-dollar economy in space by the turn of the century.”
Some 35 years later, we’ve fallen short of the mark. The best estimates of the money made from space—which these days mostly come from building and operating rockets and satellites, and using them to provide services back on Earth—is about $400 billion. To be fair to Walker, now a lobbyist who served on US president Donald Trump’s NASA transition team, the space station under discussion didn’t begin operations until 2000.
The turn of the century was a hard time for the space economy, as tech bubble-driven dreams of internet satellites and venture-backed moon missions fizzled out alongside the stock market.
But a lot has changed since then, and the dream of a trillion dollar space economy is now cited by everyone from government officials and space entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 executives and Wall Street investment banks. Analysts at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs have predicted that economic activity in space will become a multi-trillion-dollar market in the coming decades, and the US Bureau of Economic Analysis has launched a new initiative to measure it.
The trends driving this optimism are the same ones driving the tech economy writ large: The increasing power and miniaturization of transistors, batteries and solar panels, generated in part by the smartphone revolution; the convergence of telecommunications, broadcast media, commerce and nearly everything else into “the internet”; and, naturally, geopolitical tensions that still have governments spending on space and, increasingly, hiring private companies.
What does this look like in practice in 2020?
The rise of the mega-constellations
Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans to launch its fifth rocket full of proprietary internet satellites in January. That will raise the total number of satellites in the company’s Starlink constellation to about 300, well on the way to the roughly 480 the company’s executives say they’ll need to begin offering broadband internet access to customers on Earth. How exactly that will happen—as a direct to consumer product or as a partnership with terrestrial telecom firms—remains to be seen, but Musk and his team are confident that if they can build low-latency connectivity, the buyers will come.
SpaceX is hardly the only group making this bet: OneWeb, Telesat and Amazon are also investing billions in networks of thousands of internet connectivity satellites. Apple is also reportedly chasing the dream of space connectivity.
To be sure, this isn’t the first time satellite internet in space on a mass scale has been tried—Bill Gates notably invested in a failed effort called Teledesic in the 1990s. What’s different is that all the components—satellites and the rockets that launch them—are an order of magnitude cheaper, the latter thanks mostly to the efforts of Musk to drive down the cost of launch. And meanwhile, the demand for internet access isn’t a novelty, but ravenous and central to the economy.
Most of the money made in space is on the back of satellite-provided service, so these efforts are likely to meaningfully increase the space economy. The huge increase in satellites (there are about 2,300 operational satellites in space right now) will bring costs as well as benefits, with astronomers worried about interference and everyone fretting about managing all that traffic and dodging space debris. Yet that is likely to spur investment in new satellite servicing businesses that seek to keep low-Earth orbit clean and efficient.
The rise of the mini-constellations
Venture capitalists have also been throwing millions of dollars at small satellite companies with big dreams. Planet, Hawkeye360, Spire, Capella Space, BlackSky and Swarm are just some of the firms who have raised cash, launched satellites, and are planning for a big 2020. Their business models vary, from tracking radio signals and gathering radar data to imaging every inch of the Earth to communicating with internet-of-things devices. But they all depend on the falling cost of building and operating spacecraft to enable their work.
In response to the growing corps of companies operating small satellites, we’ve seen a growing number of firms building rockets fit for the task. Rocket Lab has been the most successful, but Virgin Orbit promises to begin operations in 2020, and Relativity Space remains on track for a maiden launch in 2021.
New options for human spaceflight
It’s been a long year of one-step-forward, one-step-back for the commercial crew program, NASA’s efforts to develop a private space transportation service with Boeing and SpaceX. But both companies are now in the final stretch, with orbital flights of their vehicles under their belts. Sometime in 2020, we can expect them to begin regular service to the International Space Station. NASA officials expect that to increase the amount of research done on the station, a big plus for the space economy.
The companies will also have the green light to start bringing up paid passengers, whether wealthy tourists or corporate researchers. While uncertain, that promises new revenues and new opportunities for private-sector activity in low-Earth orbit.
Closer to the ground, we can still look forward to space tourism. Virgin Galactic went public this year in a reverse merger, and now Richard Branson’s space tourism firm says it has the cash to begin flying regular tourist trips to the edge of space sometime in 2020 for a cool $250,000 a pop. Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space firm, said it would fly people on its New Shepard suborbital rocket this year, but with a week left, has not—so perhaps 2020 will be the year the company demonstrates its human spaceflight chops.
NASA’s public-private partnerships
NASA’s biggest space projects, particularly its plans to return humans to the moon, have had a tough year, with allegations of mismanagement and problems ranging from delayed hardware to muddled strategy. Space visionaries see that return to the moon—and access to the water ice discovered there—as key to the grandest visions of a future space economy, with thousands of people living and working in Earth orbit. For now, though, it’s not clear whether the US government can resolve the conflicts between its goals for space exploration and its willingness to change the way NASA does business enough to create a sustainable presence on the moon.
In the meantime, NASA is investing in smaller but perhaps more meaningful efforts to bolster the space economy. From the lunar side, it is hiring private companies to build spacecraft, landers and rovers that will carry scientific instruments to the moon. The space agency hopes that, as with its partnerships to fly cargo and crew to the International Space Station, this strategy will deliver more scientific bang for the taxpayer buck. From an economic perspective, the program is likely to bolster the know-how of private companies when it comes to operating on the moon, iterating towards that grand vision.
There’s also forward movement in low-Earth orbit, where the International Space Station has been opened up to more commercial activity, part of NASA’s hope to start sharing the costs of humanity’s space outpost more broadly.
This year marked the creation of the Space Force, a branch of the US military dedicated to space as a warfighting domain. Immediate change will be little more than existing US Air Force personnel changing their uniforms and titles, but the move spells a real shift in how the US military treats space. Right now, space exists mostly to aid and abet the other services in projecting power overseas, providing reconnaissance, communications, guidance and navigation.
Space Force, at heart, is about creating a bureaucratic and political constituency for thinking bigger in orbit—and investing in new space sensors to track enemy missiles, spacecraft that can defend themselves (and attack others), even crewed military habitats. All that means more money for private companies in space, with half-a-dozen defense agencies already pumping millions into space start-ups building everything from radar networks to high-tech materials.