Earth's orbital economy of tomorrow could be worth trillions

Space-based business is already a $400 billion industry.

JIM WATSON via Getty Images

As the scope and focus of human spaceflight has evolved, so too have NASA’s methods and operations. Regions that were once accessible only by the world’s most powerful nations are today increasingly within reach of Earth’s civilian population, the richest uppermost crusts, at least. The business community is also eyeing near Earth space as the next potentially multi-trillion dollar economy and is already working with the space agency to develop the technology and infrastructure necessary to continue NASA’s work in the decades following the ISS’ decommissioning. At SXSW 2022 last week, a panel of experts on the burgeoning private spaceflight industry discussed the nuts and bolts of NASA’s commercial services program and what business in LEO will likely entail.

As part of the panel, The Commercial Space Age Is Here, Tim Crain, CTO of Intuitive Machines, Douglas Terrier, associate director of vision and technology of NASA's Johnson Space Center, and Matt Ondler, CTO and director of engineering at Axiom Space, sat down with Houston Spaceport director, Arturo Machuca. Houston has been a spacefaring hub since NASA’s founding and remains a hotbed for orbital and spacelift technology startups today.

“We're going from a model of where we've had primarily government funded interests in space to one that's going to be focused a lot on the commercial sector,” Terrier said, pointing out that Axiom, Intuitive Machines, and “SpaceX down in Boca Chica” were quickly being joined by myriad startups offering a variety of support and development services.

“[Space is] the most important frontier for the United States to continue to have world leadership in and our goal is to ensure that we continue to do that in a new model that involves harnessing the innovation and the expertise from both inside and outside of NASA in the community represented here,” he continued.

Axiom is no stranger to working with both sides of the government contractor dynamic. It is scheduled to launch the first fully private crew mission to the ISS in April and plans to build, launch and affix a privately funded habitat module to the station by 2028. “This commercial space, very similar to the beginning of the internet,” Older explained. “There were a few key technologies that really allowed the internet to explode and so there's a few things in aerospace that will really allow commercial space to take off.”

“We think that the low Earth orbit economy is a trillion dollar economy, whether it's bioprinting, organs, whether it's making special fiber optic cable,” he continued. “I am completely convinced that 15 to 20 years from now we're going to be surrounded by objects that we can't imagine how we [had] lived without that were manufactured in space.”

“For the last 20 years humans have lived on the International Space Station continuously,” Terrier agreed. “My grandchildren are living in a world where humans live on the moon, where they'll get a nightly news broadcast from the moon? I mean, the opportunities from a societal- and civilization-changing standpoint is beyond comparison.. is actually beyond comprehension.”

The space-based economy is already valued at around $400 billion, Terrier added, with government investment accounting for around a quarter of the necessary upkeep funding and the rest coming from the private sector. He noted that NASA plays two primary roles as President Kennedy dictated in his 1962 “Why Go to the Moon” speech at Rice University: the scientific exploration of space for one, but also “to create the conditions for commercial success for United States in space,” Terrier said.

“It's synergistic in a sense that the more companies operating in space, the more of an industrial base we can call on — driving the price down, amortizing the access to space — so that NASA doesn't have to bear that cost,” he said. “It creates a role where there are things like exploring out among the planets, for which there isn't a business case — clearly the government needs to take the lead there. And then there are things where we're now commercializing low Earth orbit and that is success for everybody.”

This won’t be the first time that the US government hands off control of technology it previously had monopoly power over, Crain added. He points to NACA as “NASA for aviation in the 20s” and guided the government’s commercialization of aircraft technology.

“The only reason we can build a commercial space station is because of 25 years of flying the international space station and all the things that we've learned from NASA,” Ondler said. “NASA has learned about keeping humans alive [in space] for long periods of time. We're really leveraging so much history and so much of the government's investment to build our commercial station.”

Ondler pointed out that construction of the 7-foot x 3-foot Earth Observatory window being installed in Axiom’s station module, “by far the largest space window ever attempted,” would not have been possible without the knowledge and coaching of a former NASA space shuttle engineer. “her expertise, just her helping an engineer in one little area,” Ondler said, “allowed him to design a really good window on his first try.”

“We definitely stand on the shoulder of the great work that the space community has done until now, in terms of technology,” Crain agreed. The Apollo era, he notes, was dominated by producing one-off spacecraft parts meticulously designed for often singular use cases but that system is no longer sufficient. “The more we can make our supply chain, not custom parts, but things that have already been used already in a terrestrial market, the better off we are,” he said.

“Our mindset has to shift from ‘well, let's go all in, I'm building this first lander’ to doing it the first time already looking at the second lander,” Crain continued. “What are the differences between the two, how do we regularize that production in a way so that our design, the core of that vehicle, is basically the same from flight to flight?”

Once the Artemis missions begin in earnest, that supply chain will begin to stretch and expand. It will extend first to LEO, but should attempts to colonize the moon prove successful, it will grow to support life and business there, much like how towns continually grew along the trade and expansion routes of the American West. “You don't load up your wagons in Virginia and go straight to San Francisco,” Terrier said. “You stop in Saint Louis and reprovision, and people build up an economy around that.”

“The cool thing is that it's not just aerospace engineering anymore,” Crain added. He noted that, for example, retinal implants can be more accurately and efficiently printed in microgravity than they can planetside, but the commercial process for actually doing so has yet to be devised. “There's a completely different industry that we're gonna need. Folks to figure out, how do we build that [retinal implant printing] machine? How do we bring it and the raw materials up and down [from LEO]? We need marketing people and all those sort of folks. It's not just aerospace engineering and I think that's really what we mean when we talk about the trillion dollar economy.”