At a Glance
- Officials from NASA, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic discuss the benefits of more space exploration
- Public-private partnerships are defining a new era of travel to the final frontier
The space economy is believed by some Wall Street analysts to be a multi-trillion dollar industry. Those estimates include a far-reaching and complicated system of businesses that go far beyond human travel to space.
It also means the days of NASA being the the primary American investor in space exploration are long gone.
“We’re seeing more private capital flowing into the market than ever before,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told OpenMarkets in an interview. “We’re working on commercializing low-earth orbit specifically so that NASA can be one customer of many customers, and we can have numerous providers that are competing against each other on cost and innovation.”
Two of those providers were part of a discussion on the economy of space at The Global Financial Leadership Conference (GFLC) in Naples, Florida. Stephen Attenborough, Commercial Director for Virgin Galactic and Tim Hughes, Senior Vice President and General Counsel for SpaceX, spoke with Chris Davenport, The Washington Post’s Space Editor and author of The Space Barons on the wide-ranging possibilities for exploration, and what it could mean for humans on earth.
“If we are going to make space as an economic center, we’re going to need to take people there,” said Attenborough. Space tourism is a “readily available market at a commercially sensible price which allows us to do this more.”
Currently Virgin Galactic has more than 600 people signed up to travel into space on one of their winged rockets, with 3,500 more on a waiting list, at a cost of $250,000 per person, said Attenborough. He added that it is “expensive in earthly terms, but pretty inexpensive in space terms” and that eventually the price will be driven down.
Virgin Galactic has also helped NASA fly recent suborbital research missions on its rockets.
For its part, SpaceX has partnered with NASA, and invested in pursuits beyond traditional exploration and with other countries.
“NASA cannot be the sole purchaser of launch, or the sole purchaser of capsules,” Hughes told the audience at GFLC. “The way that SpaceX has approached our business of launch is to look at the commercial space market and the national security market, and the market for non-U.S. allied governments who are buying launch, and to really work against those markets to be sure that our portfolios are diversified.”
Bridenstine pointed out that firms like SpaceX working with other countries represents a U.S. export. “It was a public private partnership between NASA and SpaceX to make that happen,” he said. “It is now an offset on the left side of the trade desk.”
The Space Barons
In an earlier interview with OpenMarkets, Davenport discussed the motivation behind private firms and their founders like Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin), Elon Musk (SpaceX), and Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) to get involved in a new era of space travel, and help NASA achieve its goals.
He said that each of the men were inspired as children by NASA, science fiction writing and the moon landing. An era followed after the Apollo missions where NASA was not pushing as far as it had previously.
“(Bezos, Branson and Musk) wanted to reignite that passion, the interest in space and help NASA go further and faster.”
Space travel is advancing in terms of technology, ambition and investor interest. Bridenstine says the key thing that space exploration needs in order to further the space economy now is a major scientific breakthrough that changes how people live.
“We need a significant breakthrough that will transform human lives on earth,” he says. He described research being done on growing human organs in space using 3-D printing, the construction of artificial retinas for human transplantation and the creation of immunizations that cannot be created on earth.
“Once they have that one major breakthrough, there’s going to be large capital flows that come into the market.”