Fri. Jun 14th, 2024

Commercialization is Key to Continued US Space Leadership

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun12,2024

The world recognizes that space is crucial for global security, science breakthroughs, economic growth, and global sustainability.

From the birth of the space program to today, we have much to celebrate – from seeing distant galaxies through the James Webb Space Telescope to the resurgence of human spaceflight that includes the rise of a new class of private astronauts.

To ensure the United States remains a leader in space, NASA is pursuing key strategic priorities: to foster a commercial-led low Earth orbit (LEO) space economy, lead the US into cislunar space, and return Americans to the moon and on to Mars.  

Time is not on our side. Without bold steps and a unified front from commercial and government partners, the US could fall behind China and other countries that already are seeking a foothold on the moon and to strengthen their presence in LEO.

At the end of July, I will be opening 2024 ASCEND, where government and commercial leaders across aerospace and other key industries will come together to strategize on how to accelerate progress toward a sustainable independent space ecosystem.

NASA astronauts Loral O’Hara and Jasmin Moghbeli join 2023 ASCEND live from aboard the International Space Station

Transitioning to a Commercial-led LEO Ecosystem

In LEO, space startups are driving promising developments with in-space manufacturing and servicing. Scientists in microgravity are designing the perfect artificial retina, growing hearts and other transplant organs and tissue, and manufacturing higher performing optical fibers, among other breakthroughs that will benefit life on Earth. 

Despite these inroads, the LEO space economy is still being driven largely by government use cases. That needs to change, especially as the clock ticks for the International Space Station (ISS) to complete its mission in the next five years. Given today’s geopolitical tensions, the US cannot afford a gap in LEO after the ISS program ends.

The goal of the Commercial LEO Destinations program (CLD) is to deploy at least two operational commercial space stations in LEO before 2030, when the ISS is scheduled to be decommissioned. Yet the successful hand-off of LEO from government to commercial control depends on these stations’ commercial readiness and the maturity of the market, which must include non-NASA customers.

The biggest challenge of this public-private partnership is making the case for LEO to the commercial marketplace. 

Modeling Earlier Commercial Programs

The CLD program hinges on the market viability and financial commitment of investors contributing to develop one or more space stations before the ISS deorbits.

Leveraging the success of the US commercial cargo and commercial crew programs, NASA hopes to accelerate its LEO ambitions, using the partnership model that served as a cornerstone of these earlier programs. In both cases, there were common attributes that do not apply to these new programs.

For example, the market was known and predictable, with NASA covering the vast majority of the development cost of these new systems. In contrast, NASA will invest substantially less in commercial destinations, which will largely depend on commercial customers to become a reality. Also, it is significantly more complex to build a human-scale lunar lander and lunar mobility services than constructing a space capsule.

NASA has learned many lessons from the commercial cargo and crew programs, both from a technology and how-to-do business perspective, that could be applied to the CLD program. During 2024 ASCEND, we will address these lessons.

The LEO space economy hinges on a robust independent space sector, driven not by government but by commercial leadership. ASCEND will address how the industry drives that transition collaboratively.)

Embracing a Public-Private Partnership Model

Clearly, the key to a strong LEO economy is partnerships. Likely investments can’t lie exclusively with traditional prime contractors and the government, but with the broader spectrum of private companies and financial institutions. Bringing private sources to the LEO market will require new mindsets and cooperation, including NASA ceding its historic control over programs to allow the commercial industry to lead this new market evolution.

In recent discussions, the ASCEND community has noted that we potentially need to reduce competition among commercial space participants while delineating clear boundaries between collaboration and competition. Finding the right balance is crucial to fostering a healthy ecosystem that promotes innovation and growth while avoiding unnecessary conflicts that could hinder progress. The attendees of the ASCENDxTexas event in February further noted in their Interactive Session Detailed Summary that there is a shift in the dynamics of space technology development, with NASA no longer being the sole driver of innovation. This underscores the need for a paradigm shift toward shared practices and knowledge initiatives that benefit the entire industry, encouraging collaboration and efficiency. 

Identifying and Managing Risks

Realizing a robust commercial LEO ecosystem requires investment from both space startups and larger aerospace players that tend to be more risk averse as they are accountable to stakeholders. SpaceWorks’ NewSpace Index™ tracks how publicly traded companies within the space industry are performing relative to those within key US stock indices, as well as compared with traditional space firms. The latest index finds that several new firms that went public over the last few years have only 15% of their value from the start of their public trading. At the same time, traditional aerospace firms like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, which are tracked in the Traditional Space Index, are tracking with the stock market. That tells us that smaller new space players, which have taken significant risks in building a commercial LEO market, are not being rewarded.

2024 ASCEND, held 30 July 30 – 1 August in Las Vegas, will continue to shape the future of space commerce

Join the Conversation

2024 ASCEND is where some of the smartest people on the planet will gather to talk about the future of space, the challenges of leading cislunar economy development, and how best to forge a path forward. There will be multiple opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue. We are excited to welcome thought leaders to the ASCEND stage including Matthew Weinzierl, senior associate dean and chair, MBA Program; Joseph and Jacqueline Elbling Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School, and Michael López-Alegría, chief astronaut, Axiom Space.

Weinzierl will join Brendan Rosseau, a national security space consultant and researcher at Harvard Business School, when they discuss what they learned in writing their new book, Space to Grow: Unlocking the Final Frontier. The book is full of stories of some of the most exciting space companies and programs driving change today.

In the session, Building the Commercial Space Ecosystem, Lopez-Alegria will hold a fireside chat with BryceTech Founder and CEO Carissa Christensen, where they will share stories from the last 20 years chronicling how we got to where we are today and making some predictions for the future.

Other sessions will address America’s Future in Orbit: Commercial Space Stations and Setting the Stage for a Future Commercial Lunar Economy, including the technical and economic challenges that need to be solved to scale services and support the burgeoning lunar economy of the future.

It’s a crucial moment for our industry. Regardless of whether your focus is on the moon or LEO, the opportunities in space are huge and so are the stakes for our global competitiveness and security if we don’t get it right. 2024 ASCEND is where we’ll address the tough questions. We hope to see you there.

About the Author

Julie Van Kleeck serves as ASCEND executive producer at AIAA. She retired from Aerojet Rocketdyne in 2019 as the vice president of the Advanced Space and Launch Business Unit.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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