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SpaceCom exhibit hall
The exhibit hall at the SpaceCom conference in Houston featured companies and organizations primarily from the space industry, but with a few outsiders as well. (credit: J. Foust)

Expanding the space industry


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The space industry likes to emphasize how big it is—or, at least, appears to be. The Satellite Industry Association noted that, in 2014, the industry, including launch vehicles and satellites as well as ground equipment and satellite services, generated more than $200 billion in revenue. The Space Foundation’s annual publication, The Space Report, estimated the overall space economy, including the satellite industry, government programs, and other areas, reached $330 billion in 2014.

“Instead of talking about spinoffs from space that fundamentally improve the products and services that exist in other industries being used on Earth,” said Nield, “in the future, forward-looking industries are going to be trying to figure out how they can engage in and profit from activities going on in space.”

Those are large numbers, to be certain, and there’s no reason to doubt their accuracy (based on the author’s own experience working on similar reports.) But, in the grander scheme of things, those numbers are not terribly large. Other industries, like aviation, energy, healthcare, and even tourism are far larger, reaching trillion-dollar levels. Can the space industry hope to grow to those levels, or at least become broader in scope?

One way for the space industry to grow is to partner with those other industries, finding ways they can make use of space capabilities. That was the goal of the first Space Commerce Conference and Exposition, known simply as SpaceCom, held in Houston earlier this month. The conference attracted many people from the space industry, but also those from other fields that make use, or could make use, of space-related products and services.

SpaceCom started out much like a typical space conference, with keynote speaker Charles Bolden, the NASA administrator, offering another reminder of the importance the space agency places on commercialization. “Along with commercial crew, which I’m confident will be just as successful [as commercial cargo], we’ve freed up NASA to focus on the farther horizons,” he said.

Later, though, after some industry panels (including one moderated by the author), SpaceCom went into a different direction. Later panels looked at what was going on in other industries that might make use of space, including energy, medicine, and the maritime sector. Most of the rest of the conference looked at the potential for collaboration between space and those other sectors.

Those in the space industry hoped that these collaborations could go beyond the conventional roles of space in providing standard services or spinoff technologies. “Instead of talking about spinoffs from space that fundamentally improve the products and services that exist in other industries being used on Earth,” said George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, during one conference secction, “in the future, forward-looking industries are going to be trying to figure out how they can engage in and profit from activities going on in space.”

How that collaboration will work was one of the central challenges for the conference, and for the space industry in general. Some see that additional business coming from providing many of the same services they offer today, like space access, communications, and remote sensing, but in a better or less expensive approach.

“Even though it might be counterintuitive, given space’s reputation as being expensive, I believe space industry technologies and ideas can help in the era of $50-a-barrel oil,” Gittleman said.

“At the end of the day, our mission is to make the market accessible,” said Joshua Brost of SpaceX during a panel session. He said SpaceX can help expand the industry’s reach into other markets through low-cost launch. “We make it possible for people in this room who work in other sectors to figure out what they can do with space capabilities by making it more affordable.”

But others at the conference, representing some of those target industries, sought deeper collaboration with the space industry beyond being just customers for space services or launches. They see an opportunity to work with the space industry on technologies with applications for both themselves and for space.

“A lot of people have remarked over the years on the similarities between deep water exploration and space exploration,” said Mark Gittleman, executive vice president of Intuitive Machines, a Houston company that works in both the energy and space industries. “The work is truly unforgiving, and the cost of failure is very high.”

Those industries have long been intertwined, particularly in Houston, he argued, where there have been shifts of people between space and energy and back, depending on the rise and fall of the price of oil and the rise and fall of NASA programs. Both industries, he added, operate in extreme environments where the combination of people, processes, and technologies must come together to ensure success.

Space technologies, Gittleman argued in his talk, can help the oil industry as it deals with its current economic crisis. As recently as the summer of last year, oil was going for $100 a barrel or more, triggering a boom in exploration and drilling. Today, it’s trading for less than $50 a barrel. “Life is good when oil is at $100,” he said. “Then the price crashed. Now we face new and different challenges.”

He suggested space technology could play a role in improving the economics of the oil industry. One example he presented was to adapt spacecraft guidance, navigation, and control software for use in drilling, making it faster and more accurate, and thus less expensive to operate.

“Even though it might be counterintuitive, given space’s reputation as being expensive, I believe space industry technologies and ideas can help in the era of $50-a-barrel oil,” he said.

Similarly, Michael Jones, president of The Maritime Alliance, a maritime industry advocacy group, argued that the “blue ecomomy” of the oceans could benefit from working with the space industry. Both, he argued, work in inhospitable environments where high reliability is essential, and both already benefit from collaboration with government and academia.

“The blue economy and the space economy are natural allies,” he said. However, he made it clear the blue economy was the bigger of the two, with an estimated annual value of $2.5 trillion and much bigger prospects for breakthrough. “We’re more likely to get a cure for cancer from the oceans in the next 20 years than from space.”

Their take on the potential collaboration between the space and other industries was among the most sophisticated presented at the conference. Others, by contrast, offered less elaborate views, if any, on how they could make use of space, or space could otherwise work with them.

A case in point was a presentation by Maarten Sierhuis, director of automaker Nissan’s research center in Silicon Valley. His company is working, like many others, on self-driving cars, and has a Space Act Agreement with NASA’s Ames Research Center to support that effort.

However, he gave the impression from his presentation that the best aspect of that cooperative agreement with NASA was not access to NASA technology in this area, but rather access to NASA Ames itself: Nissan is using the center as a test site for its self-driving cars. “Why test at NASA Ames?” he said. “It’s very simple: testing autonomous cars on the road is very difficult. The NASA Ames campus is a city-like environment. We have three-way and four-way intersections, we have people, pedestrians, bikers, parked cars, narrow roads. It’s a really good environment to test our vehicle.”

Garaizar recalled a presentation her investor group got from an unnamed company that started off discussing CubeSats, a technology and business case they could understand. “We really got lost, though, when they started talking about asteroid mining,” she recalled.

The conference’s last day featured pitches from several companies to a group of industry experts and investors, but in many cases the link between the companies, primarily in the medical sector, and space seemed tenuous at best. The company that made perhaps the strongest link between the two in its presentation, SonoMotion, described an ultrasound device for breaking up kidney stones that could be used both on space missions and on the ground.

A clear theme of the conference was the importance of communications and discussion between the space industry and other sectors—and how those discussions are often lacking today. “The Earth observing community is still coming to grips with the needs of oil and gas,” said Yuri Sebregts, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Royal Dutch Shell. “On the other hand, we in the energy industry need to be much more open about our needs.”

Sebregts described the importance of remote sensing data for oil and gas exploration, but suggested his company is, for now, interested only in acquiring data from companies, rather than deeper collaboration. Shell, he said, has no plans to develop satellites of its own to provide the data it needs. Also, while he mentioned the company’s investment arm that funds companies working on relevant technologies, he said he was unaware of any plans by Shell to invest in the growing number of companies developing constellations of remote sensing satellites.

That lack of good communication also exists between the space industry and potential investors, particularly those with experience in other industries but less knowledgeable about space. Juliana Garaizar, managing director of the Houston Angel Network, a group of individual investors, recalled a presentation her group got from an unnamed company that started off discussing CubeSats, a technology and business case they could understand. “We really got lost, though, when they started talking about asteroid mining,” she recalled.

How successful SpaceCom is in helping bridge those communications gaps and enhance collaboration between space and other industries remains to be seen: any discussions that took place there will likely take months to turn into business deals or other initiatives. About 20 percent of the more than 1,700 attendees were from non-aerospace industries, conference organizers said, a far larger share than a typical space conference.

In the conference’s concluding panel, some were optimistic about the potential for growing the space business by accessing other markets. “I saw opportunities where we could collaborate with other folks,” said Carl Walz, director of business development for Oceaneering and a former astronaut. That collaboration, enabled either by the conference or other means, may be critical if space is to become as large and as influential as its advocates hope for it be.


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