When the U.S. space program suspended human flight in 2011, “we took away the dream of exploration for a generation of kids,” grumbles Michael Sims, who has worked for NASA for over 15 years at the Ames Research Center and now heads software at Moon Express, a startup that aims to land a craft on the moon.
Lots of adults still have their dream. Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk have between them invested close to $1 billion in space companies, respectively Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Space X. Blue Origin is working on cost-effective space travel technologies, Virgin Galactic plans to offer flights to “space tourists,” and Space X is already launching rockets into space. It’s not only NASA veterans like Sims and billionaire businessmen who care about space, numerous startups are emerging to capitalize on the opportunity. So much so that Chad Anderson, Managing Director of the Space Angels Network, calculates early-stage space companies raised over $200 million in 2013.
Many new projects are aided by NASA contracts. It recently hired Space X to taxi astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), a role previously performed for the US by Russia, which is now in jeopardy as tension between the two countries escalates. The company just completed its fifth ISS cargo mission. It carried, among other things, a new 3D printer specially designed to work in space. The printer’s maker, startup Made in Space, is the first to print in zero gravity environments.
Giant tech companies are also paying attention. Google acquired satellite company Skybox Imaging for $500 million to give businesses access to information and high resolution images of earth. The search giant also contributed $30MM in prizes for the Lunar X Prize. Now 18 teams are competing to land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon by 2016. Techonomy visited two competitors — Moon Express, located at an office park in NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and Space IL in a university neighborhood of Tel Aviv. In both cases it’s not only the prize money that motivates them, they are passionate about inspiring future generations of engineers and scientists. We were shocked to hear the optimism of such relatively small teams were about getting to the moon.
Satellite ownership is spreading widely. At a 2013 Techonomy event, Peter Platzer, CEO of early stage company Spire (then called Nanosatisfi), discussed its plan to deploy dozens of tissue-box-sized satellites. The first one launched after a Kickstarter campaign raised $100,000. Spire outfits them with cameras and sensors so customers can collect data. Initial applications monitor illegal fishing, maritime trade, and piracy.
While data and communications satellites have thus far dominated the economics of space, investors have high hopes for other businesses like mining. Planetary Resources Inc. (whose investors include Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt) and Deep Space industries both have mining plans. “If the idea works it is a multi-trillion dollar industry,” Mining the Sky author John Lewis wrote recently, “making available…more resources than the human race has used to date.” While minerals like iron may be abundant, it will initially be costly to bring them down to earth. More likely they will be used in space construction. Precious metals like platinum, on the other hand, could be affordable to send earthward. Longtime tech investor and analyst Esther Dyson says this could both radically expand the availability of such materials and reduce their price.
With all of this activity, it is tempting to ask why we are investing so heavily in space when hunger, poverty, and disease cry out for attention on earth. Moon Express’ Sims has his own matter-of-fact reply: “Realistically, most of those things are a lot harder to address than getting to the moon.” Maybe for the next generation working in space will be attractive, or even routine.
This article originally appeared in the 2014 edition of the Techonomy magazine.