Space Economy Enters the Light. Not in 2060, it’s happening now

It’s easy to forget how many assumptions underpin our everyday activities. Take refueling your car. The type of fuel, the size of the nozzle, the pumps, the gas station layout – all these arrangements are globally ‘agreed’. Car manufacturers, petrol refiners, consumers – everyone knows the drill.

We’ll need the same agreed rules in space of course. It’s tempting to think that’s decades away, we are barely off the planet. Artemis won’t return us to the Moon until 2024. This is still science-fiction, we can worry about refueling later. No.

We attended the National Space Societies New Horizons Space Conference last week[1]. Like our nascent space economy, it was a rollicking day of rapid-fire presentations, wild new ideas, confident young business leaders and (most importantly) inspiration.

Orbit Fab, a US company led by an Australian CEO is building gas stations in space. They’re right now dealing with all the ‘how will a fuel nozzle work’. They’ve built prototypes, attracted capital, and are testing their designs in space, now.

I think the space economy will be a bit like the internet in the 90s.
One month you have a conversation with a techy mate on this cool thing called the internet – the next month you are completely unable to do your job because the office wifi network goes down for 45 minutes. Space will go from ‘its out there’ to ‘haven’t you been yet?’ far quicker than we all think[2].

We heard from a business called Axiom building the first private space station. They’re not designing it, or writing a business case, they are building it. Launched modules will be assembled using the old International Space Station (ISS)[3] as a construction platform, and just before the ISS is decommissioned Axiom will decouple and head off on its own. You’ll be able to visit. Their station will include a glass room to float in and watch the world (literally) go by. Hopefully with a nice glass of zero-G distilled whiskey.

When executives from Axiom, Nebula, Orbit Fab, Gilmour and Space Machines talk about the space economy – they talk knowing it exists and operates today. But there is an economic milestone to come – they can see it on the horizon – where the Space Economy breaks from Earth’s gravitational pull. That moment is when a person or AI in space, trades with another person or AI in space to deliver a service or product in space. At that moment the Space Economy – like a star – goes supernova.

It was interesting to hear the motivation of businesses in the room. I think there were three types present:

  1. The space enthusiasts. These are the entrepreneurs leading start-ups and scale-ups doing the science and engineering necessary to get us up there. Young STEM skilled women and men – many of the Australian – are leading this cohort with the sort of energy and enthusiasm one imagines drove the last industrial revolution. They will make a new world.
  2. The traditional businesses. What’s interesting about this group – most clearly shown in the transnationals who extract minerals, clearly a task we will need to replicate in space – is their motivation. Generally, these huge businesses with shareholders and governance requirements aren’t interested in space as such, but they are interested in what can be learned in space that helps them back on earth. A kind of ‘reverse innovation’ benefit – taking the new space economy back into the terrestrial economy as new techniques, systems and technologies are created[4].
  3. The last group is the watching class. Maybe I’m part of that group. We can see this opportunity unfolding but aren’t entirely sure what our role will be yet. Auditors, consultants, lawyers, artists, philosophers, designers – we’re all not quite sure how to think about this new space economy yet. At the New Horizon’s Conference, I heard a clear message – come get involved because we need you!

Two of the best presentation were from architects. It seems obvious, we need to build habitable space. NASA’s Artemis Program will see four groups of humans live on the south pole of the moon for 30 days each in 2024/25. What will their accommodation and workspaces look like? Arup and SEArch+ showed us. Again, they are building not just talking about it.

Using moon regolith and resources easily accessible on the moon is their client brief. 3-D printing, novel use of light to simulate circadian rhythms, mitigating radiation – all this needs to be solved – and will be by professions who have for centuries done so for communities on terra. Law, art, music, economics – all will have space economy offshoots in the decade to come. The old reinvents itself, as it always has.

The space economy is coming out of the dark and into the light. Not in 2060, it’s happening now. That’s exciting for our world and for business. And the best thing is it’s exciting our next generation of leaders, a new challenge for this new generation. I’m excited.

[1] Big thanks to Luke Heffernan and his team for organising the event!
[2] You might be tempted to think the space economy is small today.  Space is a $370b global sector, some $30b of that goes to exploration.
[3] The first components of the ISS were launched in 1998 and its due to decommission in 2024.  The ISS is the ninth manned space station our planet has built.  The 10th will be privately operated.
[4] Rolls Royce briefed their Small Scale Reactors – designed with space in mind but the earthly ESG benefits are already being talked about.  Remember, there are ~37 small reactors in space now – US and Russian technology from previous decades.
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  1. Yes now, and Australia leading the way… SpaceLogistics, the only company currently performing satellite life extension IN SPACE TODAY, just signed a sale contract with Optus, Australia’s largest commercial satellite owner/operator for its very first mission extension pod.

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