Space is getting its groove back
by S. Alan Stern
|These companies, and their kin, are creating the stuff of science fiction, but with the careful eye of proven business people working to make profits for their investors.|
One sees this new entrepreneurship vividly in SpaceX, the high-profile California-based rocket and capsule builder, founded in 2002 by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk. One also sees it in the bevy of suborbital spacelines, including Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Jeff Greason’s XCOR Aerospace, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, John Carmack’s Armadillo Aerospace, and Dave Masten’s Masten Space Systems. But that’s not all. There’s Bob Bigelow’s Bigelow Aerospace, maker of private space habitats. And there is Sierra Nevada, whose aerospace group has morphed into an entrepreneurial hotbed under its leader, Mark Sirangelo. There’s also Naveen Jain and Barney Pell’s Moon Express robotic lunar transportation and resource mining company.
Although this list of entrepreneurial new space firms isn’t exhaustive, it is enough to illustrate a point: these companies, and their kin, are creating the stuff of science fiction, but with the careful eye of proven business people working to make profits for their investors.
Moreover, while a few of the firms described above are startups or “garage bands”, with only modest investment and a handful of employees, these nine firms together have almost $2 billion in investment behind them, nearly 3,000 employees already at work, and a backlog of work well exceeding a billion dollars.
These nine companies also share in common traits that have been rare in the space business for at least a generation: all are US firms. All sport unusually young workforces more reminiscent of Internet firms than aerospace industry. All but two are led by individuals with deep and successful experience in other industries. All are looking beyond standard aerospace government contracting to do business-to-business and business-to-consumer work as key elements in their business model. And all are creating aerospace businesses in space exploration/tourism niches that simply didn’t exist a decade ago.
These firms—and others like them in this entrepreneurial “NewSpace” marketplace—are also creating palpable excitement in the media, something most in the space and aerospace industry know we need.
|The birth of NewSpace commercial space firms in many ways harkens back to a time before government contracting became virtually the only way space companies could flourish.|
NewSpace is also creating feverish excitement on campuses. Colleagues and friends of the faculty in engineering departments as diverse as Purdue, Princeton, the University of Washington, Caltech, Stanford, MIT, and the University of Colorado have told me that their best students are now competing to work for the companies above and others like them. Why? It’s in NewSpace where their students see the rising tide, the most exciting opportunities to invent and innovate, and the greatest opportunities to make the most difference in the shortest time.
The birth of NewSpace commercial space firms in many ways harkens back to a time before government contracting became virtually the only way space companies could flourish. In fact, they’re reminiscent of the US aviation industry during its halcyon days of the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s, when entrepreneurs with names like Hughes, Lockheed, Martin, and Northrop created a romantic, inspiring, innovative, brash, and wildly successful industry building and operating generation after generation of new vehicles that amaze and inspired that era.
As we look forward now to the 2020s, 2030s, and 2040s, I think it’s safe to predict that a similarly amazing era of innovation, inspiration, and business success may result, thanks to a new commercial space industry, the firms that populate it today, and the new ones that will join their ranks as this new century and this new industry matures. And with that wave of innovation, inspiration, and business success that generates new jobs and new wealth, so too should come a new resurgence of American leadership in space.
As one of the fathers of this new wave of companies and innovations, Burt Rutan, likes to say, “things are looking up, looking way up.”