Democratizing Access to Space for Everyone

Image Courtesy of NASA
Image Courtesy of NASA

Humanity is at a crossroads.  Contemporary science fiction offers a variety of potential destinies for us to consider; all too often, they paint a dystopian future. Take the movie Elysium: a privileged few create a safe haven off-planet while the rest of the world lives in a Mad Max universe.  We can do better than that.

Growing up, I dreamed of making the Star Trek Universe a reality — humanity migrating and settling into the solar system to create a better world for future generations. Even though this was a distant dream for a girl born in the Philippines, decades later I was lucky enough to find my way to Silicon Valley and pursue a career in the space industry. Now I’ve joined SpaceBase to help others to realize they, too, can play a role in creating a truly sustainable space industry - no matter their background or the location of their home on earth.

At SpaceBase, we dare to dream that humanity will become a better steward of planet Earth by leveraging technology to address the grand challenges we face today, best defined by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  We dream of humanity exploring off-planet destinations to address Earth’s growing finite resource issues. We dream that rewards of these efforts will be available to all humanity.  These aspirations cannot be realized without bringing people throughout the space industry, and the planet, together.

For most people, this sounds like wishful thinking or science fiction — a future perhaps possible in 50 or 100 years if we don’t wipe ourselves out first in the process.  We believe that we’re actually much closer to this future, even given the current direction of the present superpowers-that-be.

In the past 2-3 years, bold and ambitious space missions have surfaced - backed by deep pockets and hardware development from the private sector — Elon Musk’s SpaceX Mars mission, Jeff Bezo’s Moon settlements, and traditionally conservative companies like the consortium of Boeing and Lockheed (ULA) planning to build refueling space stations with a thousand workers living between the Earth and the Moon. These are no longer powerpoint slides, but space programs backed by hardware - some of which I have had the privilege of seeing myself. But why is this all happening today? These concepts have been around for decades ranging from Gerry O’Neill’s colonies in space to Arthur C. Clarke’s descriptions of interplanetary voyages. We have been waiting 15 years for suborbital flights to be commercialized — what makes these companies so sure they can be successful now? 

The Era of Exponentials

I believe it’s because we have reached an inflection point in the development of the space industry. We got here by leveraging rapidly accelerating technologies that are the result of the exponential pace and development of computing. These technologies are what we now call exponential technologies — like artificial intelligence, robotics, and biotech. As Moore’s law manifests itself in the exponential acceleration of processor development, so does an accelerated pace of change manifest in many other technologies developing around us.  The combination of technological advancements in different fields, and the development of entirely new fields of technology, is rapidly expanding the opportunities available to scientists and engineers.

Exponential trends cannot go on forever, but accelerating change in a number of key technologies critical to the space industry is a trend that has not been broken in recent history, and I believe that is the driving force of the democratization of access to space today.  

When we talk about democratization, we define it as a broadening of opportunity and access to participation in - there is no political or other sense to it.  Opportunities once available only to superpowers are now are available to wealthy private companies - democratization will make those same opportunities available to a broader and broader set of organizations and people.

Next year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of humanity’s first attempt to explore another world, the Apollo program. It is interesting to note that the cell phone in your pocket today is 10 million times more powerful than all of the Apollo program computers combined that allowed Armstrong and Aldrin to land on the Moon.  Your cell phone contains a bevy of sensors that are better, smaller, and cheaper than anything the Apollo program had access to.

Satellite systems used to cost almost a billion dollars to build and launch. Now those same satellites are being replaced with smaller, cheaper, off-the shelf nano-satellites. Nanosats are starting to become configurable, like applications on your cell phone.  Sensors have been miniaturized and are more powerful than their expensive predecessors. Just seven years ago, former space startup Planet was building their sats in a garage in Cupertino, California, and now they own the biggest satellite constellation in the world and are imaging planet Earth 24/7. This proliferation of small satellites has created a new small satellite launch market predicted to be a $62 billion market by 2030. Endurosat, another notable next generation satellite company, allows you to configure your nanosat spacecraft within minutes with a guaranteed delivery within 5 days. 

Perhaps the most disruptive consequence of the thousands of satellites to be launched within the next five years is the deluge of data generated for numerous Earth-based applications. This will open up new opportunities for remote data analysis from anywhere in the world - anyone with access to a laptop, the internet, and the time and training to become an analyst can participate.

Satellites are just one of the many new markets arising from democratized technologies. Other examples include digital manufacturing and 3D printing. Take Made in Space (MIS), the first company to manufacture 3D printed tools and devices on the International Space Station (ISS). Today MIS has been commissioned by NASA to test building large structures in space. Using that same technology, the new small satellite launch provider Rocket Lab has launched the first 3D printed rocket engine.  3D Printing makes Rocket Labs engines cheaper and faster to produce, allowing more frequent launches.  

As the major space players prepare for big, bold missions off planet,  and as new sub-segments of the space industry begin to arise due to the growing satellite industry, more niche markets — precision engineering, digital manufacturing, habitat design, health and life support systems, and food for extreme environments — are up for grabs by emerging nations and entrepreneurs to take advantage of in this growing democratized industry.

We are lucky that education is also being disrupted, and skills and specializations developed in existing industries can be transferred to new ones. For example, new agricultural tech processes and products can be applied to space environments the same way that certain drone technology developments can be applied to nanosat development.  Content on the internet, and access to that content, is also in a period of exponential growth, and that is a key driver of educational opportunity for everyone.

Achieving Our Sustainable Future

Growing up in the Philippines and later working in Silicon Valley, I have had the privilege of experiencing social and technological environments from one end of the wealth spectrum to the other. With the gap shrinking between the worlds of scarcity and abundance, I truly believe that, given the democratization of technology, it is now time for a mind-shift towards the enormous possibilities that lie ahead in the space industry.

Together we can create a sustainable space ecosystem by focusing on just a few things. First, we need to focus on capacity building and education in parts of the world where it is needed most. Second, in areas where there is an existing education base and a pool of talent, we can catalyze space projects, and incentivize space entrepreneurs - this will engender a healthy space business ecosystem. Third, the proper funding mechanism must be implemented for these and other space initiatives to thrive.  In future posts, we will describe our strategic initiatives to address these three key work areas.

At SpaceBase we leverage our network, platform, and expertise to empower emerging and developing nations who are ready to take these steps with us toward building a global space industry ecosystem. Sign up at SpaceBase today.  Let’s create humanity’s sustainable, non-dystopian future, together.