03 October 2018
For the past year, it seems like just about everyone I encounter within the space industry has asked me about this thing called “NewSpace”. It has suddenly become all the rage, a phenomenon. NewSpace has been described as both a movement and a philosophy based on the idea commercializing space—both in Earth orbit and beyond. For me, it’s simply private entrepreneurship finally arriving en masse and starting to take hold of an industry that has been way too complacent and conservative for decades.
NASA has long tried to fuel the commercialization of space, but it has had limited success because that’s not what it was designed to do. But the agency got it right when it decided to take a chance and invest in private spaceflight by selecting SpaceX and Rocketplane-Kistler on August 18, 2006 to “develop and demonstrate commercial orbital transportation services that could open new markets and pave the way for contracts to launch and deliver crew and cargo to the International Space Station.”
The decision was made at time when the Space Shuttle was in the process of being phased out and the US government did not have a replacement ready. As it turned out, the decision paid off. SpaceX developed the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule and has been successfully supplying the ISS for the past six years. Ultimately, Rocketplane-Kistler was replaced by Orbital Sciences (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems) with its Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule.
The success of this experiment of the government relying on private companies to perform such an advanced and critical service previously handled by NASA has gone a long way toward boosting confidence in the technological capabilities of private space companies. I think this just may have been the spark that the industry needed to attract a lot of new private investment and inspire innovation and the sense that private entrepreneurship—both in satellite manufacturing/services and launch services—may hold the key to dramatically expanding the size and diversity of the industry and fueling public interest and excitement in space.
In recent years, there have emerged dozens of NewSpace satellite programs aiming to build, launch and operate thousands of new satellites by the start of the next decade. Some of the more well-known programs include Starlink and OneWeb, but there are others with cool names like BlackSky Global, EarthNow, eightyLEO and SpaceBelt. These proposed constellations have, in turn, helped to generate interest in and capital for developing new launch vehicles in anticipation of a huge demand for launch capacity. There are the better known programs like Electron, LauncherOne and Stratolaunch, but there are many other neat sounding ones likes Alpha, Intrepid, StarLord and Zero.
It feels as if the industry and the market are on the verge of a major transformation and growth cycle. It feels a little like the mid-1990s, right before all those mobile LEOs starting going up. Of course, things didn’t quite turn out as we expected back then. I think this is different.