The commercialisation of space
Posted by John Cutt on December 17, 2015
In case you hadn’t heard – “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is released in the UK today. We decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up without a related blog entry. NO SPOILERS are included below…
Recently I was intrigued to discover a contract notice entitled “Space Mission” published in the global hub of space exploration that is Swindon. Alas, it was not a design and build contract for the Death Star. Instead, UK Shared Business Services were seeking a contractor to assist in opening up the US space sector to UK entrepreneurs. While the private sector has always provided the logistical backbone of space flight – hugely successful conglomerates such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Boeing flourished as suppliers to NASA during the Space Race – humanity’s reach for the stars is increasingly facilitated by private contractors. Indeed, there are growing indications that commercial interests may ultimately replace the quest for scientific knowledge as the primary driver of innovation in the space sector.
NASA now outsources its unmanned supply missions to the International Space Station to California based contractor SpaceX. Retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 left a capability gap for manned flight; with a replacement platform still some way from fruition, NASA now depends on Russia’s Federal Space Agency to transport its astronauts to the ISS. Reliance on a foreign rival is seen by some in the US as damaging to national prestige and has undoubtedly catalysed the development of private sector expertise in space flight technology. NASA’s decision to award contracts for manned crew rotations to the ISS earlier this year to both SpaceX and Boeing – provisionally scheduled for 2017 – can be seen not only as an attempt to reinstate domestic capability, but also a pragmatic reaction to budgetary pressures. NASA – like so many public sector bodies – has recognised the monetary benefits of outsourcing and the potential of private investment to drive innovation. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic – a bold attempt to apply the business model of commercial airlines to orbital flight – epitomises the drive to transform space travel into a profit making enterprise.
Meanwhile, the European Space Agency – although not yet ready to conduct independent manned missions – is rapidly becoming a world leader in orbital and deep space technology. The ESA’s budget (almost €4.5 billion in 2015) is funded by contributions from member states and calculated according to gross national product. The ESA’s ongoing satellite programmes – notably Galileo (a peer of the US Global Positioning System) and Copernicus (an environmental observation system) – are cutting edge examples of orbital technology. Furthermore, the 2003 Mars Express mission (successful bar the failure of the UK manufactured Beagle 2 lander) and the upcoming ExoMars rover mission (a joint undertaking with Russia) showcase the ESA’s ability and ambition for interplanetary travel. A quick search of the Tenders Direct archive shows frequent ESA procurements via the OJEU in support of the aforementioned programmes, with specialist ICT services a particular focus; aerospace giant Airbus is one of the ESA’s principle suppliers, providing much of its launch capability and maintaining a substantial and complex supply chain of its own. As the scope and complexity of the ESA’s operations steadily increases, logistical pressures and budgetary constraints will likely become more pronounced; the success thus far of NASA’s outsourcing initiatives suggests a permanent shift towards large scale private sector participation and investment in the space industry, a trend likely to spread to Europe and elsewhere. As the ESA and the wider space sector evolves, contractors and investors can expect to see an increasingly diverse range of opportunities in the coming years.
Some of the most compelling science fiction imagines a future in which corporations dominate life not only on Earth but across the galaxy. As our technology continues to develop, notions of passenger flights to the moon and mining operations on Mars no longer seem as fanciful as they once did; commercial exploitation of space is rapidly becoming a reality. Could your company one day have a regional sales office on another planet?
Bonus sci-fi quiz!
Can you name the films featuring each of these fictional companies? For those of you with social lives, I’ve provided the film’s tagline. Answers at the bottom.
- Weyland Yutani
“In space no-one can hear you scream”
- Tyrell Corporation
“Man has made his match… now it’s his problem”
- Cyberdyne Systems
“Same make. Same model. New mission.”
“They stole his mind. Now he wants it back”
- Omni Consumer Products
“Crime has a new enemy”
How you scored…
1/5: Go home and rethink your life
2/5: Much to learn you still have
3/5: A New Hope
4/5: The Force is strong with this one
5/5: Jamie’s Italian and new Star Wars. Pick you up at 7 😉
Answers: 1) Alien 2) Blade Runner 3) Terminator 4) Total Recall 5) Robocop