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Space for the 21st Century

by Langdon on June 20, 2016


Over the past decade, InnovationLabs has partnered with some of the world’s leading space advocates and educators to prepare and publish a series of books about the possibilities, opportunities, and challenges related to space travel, space commerce, and the development of a thriving off-Earth economy.
We’re pleased to announce that the fifth volume in this series has now been published: Space for the 21st Century: Discovery, Innovation, Sustainability.

The book’s co-authors are recognized globally as experts in all facets of space development, and include United Nations officials, leaders from a dozen nations, NASA and ESA, as well as leading space entrepreneurs and educators.  The chapters cover a wide range of topics, including the multinational frameworks for cooperation in space, entrepreneurial opportunities, sustaining the efforts through appropriate investment and the development of new business models, and the risks from orbital debris, etc.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 20:

Update on Commercial and Academic Space Endeavors

Commercial efforts to develop space-related businesses have seen significant successes during the last few years, and with increasing emphasis and investment by a wide range of private, public sector, and academic investors, it is reasonable to expect continuing expansion of both investment and operational success.

Our intention here is not to provide a comprehensive overview of these efforts, but to mention at a high level some of the more notable aspects of this ongoing and growing process.

Private and Public Investment

As of this writing, April 2016, there are dozens of private space efforts under way. A page maintained on Wikipedia entitled “List of private spaceflight companies” summarizes the companies engaged in development efforts already under way in these categories.[1]

Category Number of Companies Listed
Crew and Cargo Transport 17
Space Stations 5
Launch Vehicles 13
Landers, Rovers, and Probes 18
Mining Companies 6
Propulsion 11
Satellite Launch 8
78 *

* Four companies are included in multiple categories, giving a total of 74 active companies.

Bloomberg reports that the total of invested capital represented by these companies is more than $10 billion,[2] and of course these do not include the major private sector suppliers to satellite, government and military space efforts, such as Boeing and Northrop Grumman in the US, Airbus and Thales in Europe, Mitsubishi in Japan, and dozens of others around the world that support a thriving satellite industry.

Their major customers are listed below, which are the largest of the national space efforts worldwide, the nations with the 23 largest budgets. As you can see, current public investment in space totals more than $40 billion, of which about 70 percent is accounted for by the US, Russia, and the ESA.

Agency Budget
of US $)
 United States NASA 17,800 2012
 Russia Russian Federal Space Agency 5,600 2013
ESA European Space Agency 5,510 2013
 Japan Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency 2,460 2010
 France French Space Agency 2,170 2014
 Germany German Aerospace Center 2,000 2010
 Italy Italian Space Agency 1,800 2014
 China China National Space Administration 1,300 (Euroconsult)
500 (official)
 India Indian Space Research Organisation 1,200 2016
 Canada Canadian Space Agency 489
 UK UK Space Agency 414
 South Korea Korea Aerospace Research Institute 366 2007
 Ukraine State Space Agency of Ukraine 250
 Argentina Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales 180 2016
 Iran Iranian Space Agency & Iranian Space Research Center 72 + 67 = 139 2015
 Spain Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial 135 2009
 Netherlands Netherlands Space Office 110
 Sweden Swedish National Space Board 100 2011
 Brazil Brazilian Space Agency 100/R$ 299 2015
 Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission 75 2011
 South Africa South African National Space Agency 12 2015
 Switzerland Swiss Space Office 10
 Mexico Mexican Space Agency 8
WORLD Total of listed budgets ~ $41,800


Success and Failures

The efforts of these entrepreneurial companies generates a significant volume of news coverage from their recent successes, which is indicative of a vibrant and active community engaged in investment, engineering, and testing. The more prominent firms, including SpaceX, Blue Origin, Orbital Sciences, and Virgin Galactic have received extensive press coverage of recent supply missions to the International Space Station, launch and retrieval of launch vehicles, extensive programs of test flights, and in the case of Bigelow Aerospace, the delivery of one of its inflatable modules to the ISS for testing as of this week, April 2016.

There have also, of course, been some notable failures, including the crash during a 2014 test flight of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip 2, and some failed launches by SpaceX. Following the release of the National Transportation Safety Board report on the fatal SpaceShip 2 crash, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson offered this comment: “Every new transformative technology requires risk, and we have seen the tragic and brave sacrifice of Mike Alsbury [who was killed in the crash] and the recovery of injured surviving pilot Pete Siebold. Their tremendous efforts are not in vain and will serve to strengthen our resolve to make big dreams come true.”[3]

This theme is quite consistent among space entrepreneurs – the intent to dream big. Their work to fulfill those dreams has been a consistent theme throughout the Space Age, and it has provided significant motivation for all types of participants. We can anticipate that continuing successes among the various entrepreneurial and commercial firms will only accelerate those efforts.

Risks to Sustainability

However, it should also be clear based on many of the chapters in this volume that all of that investment is at risk, and all of the benefits that space has to offer to humanity are likewise at risk, should the problem of space debris overwhelm the capacity LEO and GEO space to accommodate successful satellite and station orbits.

The NASA photo to the right shows the damage that was sustained to a window on the Space Shuttle during STS 7, 1983, and as we saw on page 306, the ISS has also sustained damage from a micrometeorite. NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office is focused exclusively on this issue, and maintains an interesting library of data on debris strikes on various spacecraft, as well as procedural standards and ongoing mitigation efforts.[4]

NASA reports that it tracks more than 21,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than 10 cm, the estimated number of particles between 1 and 10 cm in diameter is 500,000, while he number smaller than 1 cm exceeds 100 million.[5] The image below, also from NASA, shows orbital debris in GEO.

NASA is of course not the only space agency that is concerned.

The Swiss research institute École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) announced its plans to build and launch a spacecraft called CleanSpace One by 2018 that would grab orbital debris and then carry it back towards Earth, burning up in the atmosphere with it on its way down. Originally designed using a claw-like grasping tool, EPFL’s further research revealed that a folding conical net designed by students at the Western Switzerland University of Applied Sciences that would gobble up bits of space garbage is expected to be more effective.

Growing Entrepreneurism

While some efforts are geared at attempting to collect space garbage, others are creating tools to enable more students and professionals to be active space scientists and entrepreneurs on very small budgets. For example, CubeSat Kit will be happy to sell you, for only a few thousand dollars, the materials you need to build a cube sat, a 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm satellite device that has become a standard tool for low budget space operations ( And NanoRacks, the first company to operate on the International Space Station, will launch your cubesat for you at a modest price. They have already launched more than 300 successful payloads ([6]

These are just two among dozens of small companies that are being developed to serve what could become a thriving industry in the coming decades. And like companies operating on Earth, which routinely buy services from dozens of suppliers that provide water, electricity, sewage disposal, waste removal, recycling, janitorial services, internet access, package delivery, and office supplies, space-based entrepreneurs will need all of these services, as well as unique services that ground-based businesses never need to think about. Like orbital debris monitoring, threat removal, and radiation monitoring.

The market research firm NewSpace Global now counts more than 800 private space companies globally ( One of them, the space imaging firm Planet Labs has raised more than $160 million in investment, which it used to launch 73 global imaging satellites. “A lot of people were very skeptical, and what we were trying to do seemed ludicrous,” said founder Will Marshall, a former engineer at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. “But we have assets in orbit, and customers who are very interested in the data. Every time we take a picture, we can see how the world is changing.” [7]

What was once ludicrous is now common, and what may seem to us unimaginable may one day in the not so distant future also become common. That’s the potential of space commerce to further extend the human presence into and eventually perhaps throughout the Solar System. Such progress would transform the concept of space sustainability from a concern of governments and foresighted observers to an everyday business concern, and the efforts of COPOUS and all of the related organizations globally to address these issues will be fully rewarded not only with new economic opportunities, but tremendous social and cultural benefits as well.


 [1] – Accessed April 12, 2016





[6]      For more on NanoRacks see also: Cummins, Christopher K. “An Open Source, Standardized Research Platform for the International Space Station,” in Space Commerce: The Inside Story by the People Who Are Making It Happen. Morris and Cox, Editors. ATWG, 2010. P. 105.



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