51 years after the first human landing on the moon, we are on the verge of an epic upcoming decade in the field of Space exploration, development, commercialization, and exploitation of Space resources.
Space agencies and private ventures are developing many projects yet, much is still needed to enable a sustainable economic permanent settlement life.
Exponential disruptive technologies, the sharing economy and improved efficiencies present a wide spectrum of opportunities for commercialization and ambitious exploration. Yet without an integrated Space development cooperation that aligns the incentives and value proposition of key Space participants and decreases failure modes, pushing the exploratory frontiers and opening new horizons might prove to be too costly and slow for single nations or companies to achieve.
This year, 2020, marks the fifty-first anniversary for the first human landing on the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin from NASA reached a pinnacle moment in human efforts and set 20 July 1969 as the date to remember in the history of Space exploration and development.
Since then, the “Space Race” has calmed down with less impressive strategic achievements. Much of the Space activities and funding were focused on facilitating concrete and lucrative earth-based activities such as satellite communication, navigation, broadcasting, and the like.
Recently, however, we started to see a shift in perspectives and objectives and we are at what seems to be the edge of a new era for Space exploration, development, commercialization and exploitation. Exploiting space with scale is becoming more affordable due to disruptive technologies, falling costs, improved efficiencies and agility development. Public Space agencies, and private firms alike, are already designing Space tourism for the rich, mass transportation, advanced communications, Space minerals exploitation, earth extension possibilities, and are even promoting to build the first villages of the moon and organize human visits to Mars. This seems to be just the beginning of another fifty years of a promising thriving Space industry.
Despite the sky no longer being the limit, the journey will not be an easy one. Space agencies, private firms and investors are increasingly faced with severe technical, commercial and organizational challenges. Objectives and opportunities are diverse which makes tackling these challenges naturally driven by segmented and non-complementary approaches. However, is there room for a more optimized strategy that can benefit most players in their quest for different objectives?
Space Economy is already employing more than a million people. Space is projected to be a trillion-dollar industry by 2040. Nations and private investors are racing to develop the new skies, for a multitude of goals, nonetheless they are faced with multiple challenges. They are trying to figure out what will it take to get them there:
- How should they design the needed rockets, landers and rovers; for humans and for cargo?
- Should they assume access to a gateway at high lunar orbits or should they design for enough propulsive capacity to travel all the way directly to the moon?
- What are the indifference curves for different players and at what gateway access prices and volumes? and
- How does that affect the probability of timely success for each participant and corresponding missions?
From State Focused to Privately Driven
Public Space agencies are the drivers of national Space aspirations and have traditionally taken the lead in developing ambitious research and development projects. China plans to build a research center on the moon’s south pole and land people by 2035 while USA plans to return to the moon by as early as 2024, four years earlier than the previous announced target date of 2028. Europe’s plans are mostly about commercializing already discovered frontiers and contributing to further ambitions under the leadership of NASA. Russia, the inheritor of the once Space leader the USSR, has reduced its Space ambitions and is already teaming up on research and exploration activities with NASA, the EU and other players such as Canada and Japan under American leadership. India is also developing its Space plans gradually. Earlier this month, the UAE joined the team of Mars explorers by successfully launching the Hope probe using Mitsubishi’s H2-A rocket. The probe was designed in collaboration with foreign research institutions
However, the distinguishing feature of the recent surge in Space activities is the increased interest of pioneering and financially capable private Space ventures. SpaceX, Blue Origin and other more established companies like Boeing are developing rockets, Spacecrafts, moon landers among others to service lower earth orbits or deep Space missions. Recently, several critical milestones have been achieved. In 2015, SpaceX succeeded in launching the Falcon 9 rocket and recovering its first stage making it the first orbital class partly refurbished reusable rocket. The implications of this success are too large to underestimate. The reusability of the rocket meant that the costs of launching cargo to Space can drop below the one-million-dollar limit. 2020 marked another achievement with SpaceX Dragon 2 Spacecraft successfully docking to the International Space Station (ISS) with two NASA astronauts on board. This was the first private spacecraft to carry humans to Space. The near future promises further successes with the foreseen deployment of Boeing’s Starliner reusable spacecraft and the colossal orbital reusable Blue Origin New Glenn rocket.
A Spectrum of Opportunities
The aims of public agencies and private ventures are as wide as the available opportunities. The already developed disruptive technologies have paved the way for a dynamic satellite industry driven by the continuous miniaturization of electronic equipment. This allowed the production of small, relatively cheap but capable “minisats” (weighing less than 500 kg) and “nanosats” (which can weigh as low as single digits of a kg). The combination of small-sized satellites with the reusable suborbital and low orbital rockets opens wide doors for commercial opportunities. The same can be said about Space Tourism that is becoming more affordable with prices for suborbital excursions reaching $250,000 at Virgin Galactic for early enthusiasts. Japan’s Yusaku Maezawa, a fashion billionaire, is taking his team of artists for a trip around the moon by 2023 using the envisioned SpaceX Starship composed of reusable spacecraft and super heavy rocket. Space Tourism might compete with Earth airline industry as SpaceX estimates that the travel time from New York to Shanghai using Starship can take as low as 39 minutes compared to the 15 hours of airplane travel.
In addition to the development of heavy rockets to enable humans to reach deep Space, research and development projects are already underway to design modern moon landers capable of carrying equipment to initialize the colonization of the moon. Astronauts will be able to sustainably stay on the moon and explore it using moon rovers and their movable habitats. The latter will act as their “portable tents” for extended exploratory endeavors. The presence of a Lunar Orbit Gateway, as planned by NASA in partnership with other space agencies and private companies, will serve as a “new ISS” to support moon life and sustain deep Space activities. This gateway will allow the launching of deep Space missions which evade the mechanic barriers, caused by Earth’s gravity, faced when Earth-based launches are initiated.
Any sustained presence in Space, be it on the moon or elsewhere, requires the development of a wide array of technologies to use Space resources ensuring increasing ‘independence” from Earth and reducing costs. This will entail carrying out design and manufacturing activities in Space using existing disruptive technologies (such as 3D printers) and space material (such as the moon’s regolith). Such technologies will pave the way to mining the moon, other minerally-rich asteroids and Mars.
Visiting Mars is a long and technically challenging mission. Astronauts will have to spend hundreds of days traveling and therefore should be equipped with the proper habitation systems that ensure a very efficient use of the limited resources available and provide both a physically and psychologically safe working environment. The presence on the moon will allow humans to start testing such systems designed for more ambitious missions.
Room for Collaboration
In a competitive greenfield sector, such as Space, collaboration is key to develop and thrive. Even though the players in this field have different visions and perspectives for Space development, it is important that they agree on some common objectives and collaborate to build a Space ecosystem. This will allow them to reap the benefits of shared infrastructure and services and minimize failure modes for all Space participants.
On state level, the ISS constitutes one of the most visible multi-national collaborative Space projects between five Space agencies: The USA, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. It provides an example of how different objectives can converge on transitionary goals for the benefit of all participants. However, the ISS also illustrates how geopolitics and first mover advantage also govern Space relations. China, a relatively latecomer, was not provided access to the ISS. It is thus planning to build its own Space Station. A similar rift seems to exist between the NASA-led initiatives for colonizing the moon and Chinese efforts to unlock moon resources for sustained human presence there.
Besides state-level cooperation, public private partnerships have witnessed growth in recent years. The most successful and sizable example is the NASA Commercial Crew Program that acts as a facilitator and enabler for achieving U.S. commercial crew Space transportation. This program enables NASA to set pre-defined requirements that private companies should abide by but allows them flexibility in proposing their own efficient and innovative solutions. The winner companies are then offered financial funding and technical support from NASA to achieve their common objectives. The resulting systems built are owned and run by the private companies and supporting services are provided to NASA. So far, this program resulted in NASA awarding contracts worth more than $8.2 Billion to private companies with the aim of reducing the gap in American human Spaceflight capabilities. This program has proved to be a direct enabler of the recent and the foreseeable successes of private companies such as SpaceX, Boeing and Blue Origin. However, competition between private companies is fierce and is only expected to increase especially if driven by risk-taking billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos willing to fund ambitious projects with long and unguaranteed payback periods.
Therefore, a unique optimal strategy for Space development, commercialization or exploitation that can rally most players around it, is hard to imagine. Today, different agencies and firms are working towards different objectives for different time horizons and do not necessarily all fall in the same ‘optimal’ Space Development Strategic Agenda.
Nevertheless, even within a single country, agreeing on an ‘optimal’ strategy is not easily achieved. For example, is it ‘more optimal’ for the US to directly establish a base or a settlement at the moon, similar to the ‘Moon Direct’ proposal* or build an interim staging gateway at high lunar orbits? Or is it ‘more optimal’ to go with a completely different solution that optimizes lunar and Mars crewed potential missions and other deep-Space explorations? While a staging-area gateway implies minimal fuel to get there and therefore easier shipping of supplies from earth, establishing lunar settlements imply making use of potential lunar local resources and therefore sustainable future developments.
For such similar Space strategic issues and challenges to be addressed, and given their high impact on the overall future Space ecosystem, Space players with different objectives need to collaborate to achieve the maximum of the collective interests of all participants. The situation calls for typical game-theoretical cooperative behaviors between competing players for the greater good of all. This can particularly be put into action when well-framed specific projects with short-term objectives resulting in win-win situations for all participants, similar to the ISS project or the Commercial Crew Program, can be designed paving the way for more strategic longer-term cooperation.
*A proposal by USA’s Dr. Robert Zubrin
Key issues include:
- How can we align the incentives of key participants around one option versus another? and
- How does each option enable further Space exploration and development, to the moon and beyond?
- What are the timelines of different options and their value propositions to different participants? and
- What are the risks and failure modes? and
- How can such a decision impact and facilitate overall Space development, technologically and chronologically? and
- How does it relate to Space entities’ individual development short term goals of becoming Space pioneers and long-term objectives of activating and protecting their Space share?
The Laws of the Skies
With the rush towards new unexplored Space and increasing competition, it is only a matter of time before conflicts arise.
For Space to be developed and exploited safely, the biggest challenge is to create a system of laws and protocols that governs the actions and reactions of people and entities. It should also resolve their conflicts with the least loss possible.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty declares Space to be the “province of all mankind” and forbids claims of ownership, leading to a number of unresolved ambiguous issues:
- Who will have claim over the potential ice at the poles of the Moon, for example?
- Who guarantees that the first-mover will not impose de-facto status?
- Who will monitor and ensure the protection of the environment in Space?
- Who would be liable for satellites or Space craft accidents, collisions or even malfunction due to signal jamming, etc.?
- Who commands and controls Space? And
- What rules and procedures can be put in place to ensure the safety and security of Space and future Space settlers and inhabitants?
Can a technology such as blockchain** replace traditional earth-based bureaucracies and mechanisms of trust and decrease “friction” in Space interactions? Can it allow trades and exchange of information and needed authentications between different Space participants?
While blockchain is still an emerging technology, it promises wide application in identity validation and authentication. It also ensures the provenance of products as well as storing and transferring of value securely, nearly freely and instantly without the need for hierarchical and centralized structures.
**Blockchain is a distributed-ledger based technology that allows nodes to gain consensus through protocols without the need of an independent trusted party