Why the startup space race is good for you

January 28, 2015

Space might soon become crowded, and that could be good news for you.

This week Boeing and Lockheed Martin reported strong earnings for the fourth quarter of 2014 on a combination of strong civilian and military airplane orders. As these Reuters interactive graphics show, the quarter was up and down for the country’s five largest aerospace companies, but each ended in the black, led by Northrop Grumman at 11.9 percent and followed by General Dynamics at 8.3 percent. Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush said last week that he does not expect the Department of Defense to assent to consolidation among the companies, but owing to the disruptive nature of startups in the industry, it is competition, not consolidation, that traditional aerospace firms should watch.

This week NASA announced that SpaceX and Boeing have teamed together to launch a manned spacecraft in 2017, with the goal of eventually sending operational missions to the International Space Station. Iannouncing a recent $1 billion funding round from Google and Fidelity, SpaceX explained that the money would be used “to support continued innovation in the areas of space transport, reusability, and satellite manufacturing.” Clay Dillow explains in Fortune why the reusability aspect is so important:

SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology could impact industries beyond those associated with space, such as telecommunications and imaging. The cost of space access could drop from its current range of between $65 million and $70 million to something more like $30 million, or even $20 million, putting it within reach of companies and industries that couldn’t consider it before.

Earlier this month, when a SpaceX rocket crashed in a fireball trying to land on a platform floating in the Atlantic Ocean, founder Elon Musk dryly joked, “Close, but no cigar. This time.” Next time will be soon: Feb. 8, when SpaceX deploys a weather monitoring satellite for NOAA and NASA, after which it will again try to land a first-stage booster on a platform.

Musk isn’t alone. Startup OneWeb recently secured funding from Qualcomm and Virgin to build and launch 648 satellites in an effort to outfit the globe with high-speed Internet employing VirginGalactic’s LauncherOne satellite deployment craft. Writing in MIT Technology Review, Dave Majumdar describes some less spacy competition: “Google is working on a high-altitude balloon-based Internet delivery system called Loon. And Facebook is developing high-altitude, high-endurance drones to deliver Internet capability to remote areas.”

Google’s Eric Schmidt’s believes that the ubiquity of the Internet of Things will make the us forget about the Internet itself. For that to happen, the Internet needs to be virtually everywhere, which four major players are trying to accomplish. This competition, along with a lowered bar for satellite deployment, should be good news for the end user: you.

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Instead of floating platform landings, Mr. Musk should try inflatable flotation devices on rocket boosters similar to NASA technology for reusable Shuttle booster rockets. Floating at sea allows recovery without precision landings on platforms.
Space’s long term goal is the asteroid belt, an unformed planet. Resources on Earth are limited to its outer 1 mile of 1/3 of the planet because oceans, Earth’s molten core, and global politics interfere. Rockets sent to asteroids can return them to low Earth orbit for exploitation and increase Earth’s resource base by 402,000% without fighting wasteful wars. Joint stock companies let nations invest to share resources, profits, and costs. Asteroids that pass close to Earth can allow capture and tests of exploitation technology for the future.

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