Space is regarded as the final frontier, and it has been in the news lately for all the right reasons.
The geospatial industry for instance, a part of the space economy value chain has been at the forefront of the coronavirus pandemic by providing imagery and data which is critical in rehabilitation and relief efforts. Other value sectors of the industry such as the communications sector have been providing the backhaul necessary to boost work from home, higher bandwidth for streaming services and allowing players to mitigate the effects of working and learning in this time of the “New Normal”.
Space has always been a closed, restricted sector which only prompted the interest of the government and the military. Early programs in space were meant for the surveillance of enemy assets, securing military grade communications, missile tracking and more. However, we see that a lot has changed in the years, in the way that space has become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives.
Surveillance today, is used by the private sector and government officials for mapping property in cities, fixing taxes, implementing development also by farmers to better understand the kind of soil and water present to aid in their farming practices. Communication satellites form the backhaul of the modern world with much of the information transfer across the planet facilitated by satellites and missile tracking satellites are now providing us coverage access through GPS and helping one book a cab or play Pokémon GO! Go figure!
The civilian aspects of space, some of which were mentioned above, punch far above their weight and this has spurred a lot of interest for the commercialisation of space by private entities. Presently the space economy as per the report released by Bryce is estimated to be above $ 370 Billion USD, and Morgan Stanley estimates this figure will hit the $ 1 Trillion mark by 2030. From 300 satellites launched a year, an estimated 50,000 satellites will be launched by corporate behemoths such as Amazon, One web, Facebook, Samsung, Space X and many more in the coming decade. The interesting aspect to note here is that upstream services, which constitute the hardware (Rockets and satellites) is not where the money lies, but it is the applications side, the downstream aspect where the value is. As per the firm Euro consult in 2018, the upstream segment which constitutes the core of the space industrial base has revenues of around $ 8-9 Billion while the downstream has $ 290 Billion.
This interest in the application of space and the potential for growth has seen a lot of corporates and venture capitalists all taking note and interest towards building and being a part of the global space value chain. The private investments in space are at an all-time high and yearly the investments is rising. There is also a lot of push from state actors in aiding the effort towards facilitating entrepreneurship and building capacity for growth. For instance, in the USA, NASA and the Department of Defence offer incentives and grants for small companies in building critical space technologies and assets. Testing facilities and resources are often provided to the private entities by the government to accelerate technology readiness and facilitate innovation towards making products which can be brought out into the market. Spin off technologies, often a culmination of the products of years of research has seen a lot of interest towards commercialisation. UV Coated spectacles, diapers, ready to eat meals to mention a few, are all spin offs from the space sector.
We find a similar trend in Europe where state actors have offered technology incubation centers and public funding for deep science technologies to allow for the maturation of the industry. Capital is important for the undertaking of any private enterprise and companies dealing with space technology often need deep pockets for the R&D and testing that is necessary towards building and maturing these technologies.
Governments, the investor community and the supply chain have all taken a note and are advancing towards investments of varied scales to promote entrepreneurship and spur a new age of corporates that have customer engagement not just limited to government entities. PPP, B2B, and B2C models have taken precedence over traditional G2G of the space sector of yesteryears.
In India, the department of space which comes under the Prime Minister’s office and the main entity responsible for space activities is the Indian Space Research Organisation. ISRO has a large vendor network with many companies involved in building some aspect of technology for ISRO for its space activities. For instance, the Polar satellite launch vehicle or PSLV is integrated at Sriharikota, but certain aspects like its engines are built by Godrej. In India, The same Godrej Company that makes some of the best door locks is also a vendor for ISRO towards delivering something as advanced as a rocket engine. It is just an example of how corporate engagement can be spread throughout the value chain.
In a recent legislation passes, the Govt. of India has allowed for nurturing and growth of the private ecosystem by incorporating a body called IN-SPACE. This development will further add impetus to a growing number of private startups and companies joining the fray towards building a space ecosystem.
The author, who is associated with a space startup in India feels that such initiatives taken by the government is a welcome step towards building the private space ecosystem. Working in the commercial sphere, one has a firsthand account of the difficulty in garnering investments and attracting investor interest since space technology is often something which people welcome with skepticism. The value of space and the importance is something which the public is slowly beginning to understand. The technologies often at development, takes a long time to fructify and mature to a stage at which it can be brought out into the market, along with this, many restrictions and regulations come into play during import and in technology development. For instance, the development of the Cryogenic engine for GSLV during the 1990’s was stalled due to technological sanctions placed by the West, when India tested its nuclear devices. These technological restrictions and sanctions, often which are not in favour of lesser economically advanced countries, add up to the task of building and mapping out a supply chain that can support the development of the program.
While there is tremendous pressure working in an environment with a lot of risk and uncertainty involved, the risk is worth it, especially when one gets to see the years of hard work, the grandeur of all success and failures, in endless striving culminate in the day of launch when dreams, aspirations and endeavours all lift off in a great column of fire up into the heavens, Space truly is one and above all.