Innovation Monitor: The new Space Race is here
Welcome to this week’s Innovation Monitor.
In January 2020, we covered the new, privatized space race, along with its potential commercial and investment opportunities. In July 2021, we’ll see the first realization of this battle between billionaire-backed space startups, as Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos launch into the atmosphere. Bezos and Branson are set to take suborbital flights, each with a small crew of space tourists, within the next two weeks. But while representatives from each company acknowledge the friendly rivalry, a space race is starting in parallel with China, and soon, the rest of the world.
Space opens up new channels of innovation and commerce. It’s an awe-inspiring frontier, and in 2021 we’re at an inflection point for the industry. Reduced launch costs, public interest, private funding, new rocket technology, and a host of other factors are converging for to form the beginning of Space 2.0. Since 2001, there have been just eight people sent up as space tourists. That number will more than double in the next 12 months.
Following these space races is can inspire, but there are major implications for business and society — the privatized nature of the American edition, the geopolitical considerations around the US vs. China efforts — these will undoubtedly shape the next century across the political and business spectrums.
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Erica Matsumoto To Begin…New Players To Watch While the names Bezos, Branson, and Musk dominate the conversation around space, there are a number of other players doing incredibly cutting-edge work in space-tech. This New York Times piece, Startups Aim Beyond Earth, offers an excellent overview of the sector to date. With over $7 billion invested in 2020, there are a number of firms like Astranis, a satellite internet company, or Axiom Space, who hope to build a commercial space station, driving the industry forward. Morgan Stanley put out a report called “Space: Investing in the Final Frontier” that digs deep into the financial side of the space race.
I’ve been fascinated by the company, Launcher Space, that is building a rocket specifically designed to transport small satellites to orbit. In pushing for this goal, they’ve done incredible things like building the world’s largest 3D printed liquid rocket engine. Another interesting company is Relativity Space, which is “building the first autonomous rocket factory and launch services for satellites.” For those interested in a deep dive into investments in the space, this report by BryceTech may be of interest. Edge of Space Today Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are all set to launch civilian flights roughly near or above the Karman line — refer to NOAA’s image below.
At the 50 mile mark — the altitude where air is so thin that traditional aircraft cannot effectively fly — passengers on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo will experience about four minutes of microgravity before dropping back to Earth.
Blue Origin, with Bezos on board, will be launching on July 20 in a more traditional rocket, reaching above the 62 mile mark — the Karman line — where the edge of space “officially” begins.
Meanwhile, Musk will not be participating in SpaceX’s Q4 2021 Inspiration4 launch, an all-civilian private flight that will orbit around the Earth for two to four days around the 300 mile mark. Branson vs. Bezos vs. Musk? With two private companies and one public (Virgin Galactic) set to launch civilians to the edge of space and beyond this year, will the space tourism industry suddenly blossom?
Axios space writer Miriam Kramer doesn’t see commercial space flight being available to the wealthy (vs. the ultra-wealthy) for another decade (conservative estimate), but the friendly competition is definitely bringing massive awareness to the industry.
If all goes well, public and private funding will continue to increase. If anything goes wrong, it sets the industry back years (see Virgin Galactic’s crash in 2014, and for peripheral but related material, see Uber’s 2018 crash).
Making things riskier, these companies have been lobbying congress to allow early testing, so the FAA is not allowed to actually regulate anything on these flights until 2023, according to Kramer. Passengers sign a waiver, but it’s up to the companies to ensure safety.
Launching and building satellites is what bring the real money in , but the rivalry between billionaires might not just get more people interested in space, but help fund bolder missions. Space Logistics What’s a few minutes of floating and magnificent views of Earth’s curviture going to cost you? Here’s a quick breakdown:
Virgin Galactic: Branson’s company has already sold 600 seat reservations at $200k to $250k on the SpaceShipTwo.
Blue Origin: Bezos is selling seats for $200k to $300k on the New Shepard, not including the auctioned $28M seat on the inaugural flight on the 20th.
In terms of the genuine “space experience” there’s no comparison. Before SpaceX’s upcoming Crew Dragon flight, only a handful of orbital tourism trips were made, starting with Dennis Tito in 2001. SpaceX has already achieved another historic milestone, becoming the first private company to send people to orbit (two astronauts headed for the ISS). US vs. China An even bigger, global rivalry is already underway, with China recently making leaps and bounds in space. For one, there are the rovers. In 2019, China landed the first ever rover on the far side of the moon.
Then there’s the Mars rover. According to The Conversation, out of 49 missions to Mars (up to December 2020) “only about 20 have been successful.” NASA has sent five rovers to Mars over the years — the latest sending back stunning footage and sounds of the red planet.
China’s first mission to Mars — Tianwen-1 (“questioning the heavens”) — is a gutsy move, according to Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, combining both an orbital lander and rover.
After a 202-day journey, China’s spacecraft successfully inserted itself into Martian orbit on February 10 this year, landing the Zhurong rover (named after the god of fire in Chinese mythology) on May 15. Last week the world received both audio and video from Zhurong via the Tianwen-1 satellite orbiting Mars.
Last month, China sent three astronauts to Tianhe, the core model of what will eventually become the country’s space station. Funny enough, China’s ambitions for this mission were partly fueled by the US banning NASA from engaging with Chinese government agencies.
“[The Chinese] did want to be part of the International Space Station. This is actually a result of the inability of China to be involved in the International Space Station because of politics — but what it’s had the effect of doing, actually, is spurring China on,” said Quentin Parker, Director of Space Research at the University of Hong Kong.
China isn’t just learning from the US’s public sector. According to CNN:
“China’s main space contractor revealed plans to develop the ability to reuse its Long March 8 booster, which is powered by kerosene fuel, the same type of power that fuels SpaceX rockets. By 2025, Chinese officials said, this rocket would be capable of landing on a sea platform like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster.”
International competition might be prove to spur the US in turn. It was the Soviet’s 1957 satellite launch, first moon probe, first humans in space (Yuri Gagarin in 1961 and Valentina Tereshkova in 1963) that fueled the funding of the US space program in the 60s. After US-Soviet relations improved, funding dropped dramatically.
This Week in Business History
July 7th, 1936: The Phillips-head screw is patented by inventor Henry F. Phillips
Sometimes the seemingly smallest of innovations can have an incalculable impact on our life. The story of the Phillips head screw began in 1932 when John P. Thompson invented the design and patented it. In 1936, he sold the patent to Henry Phillips, who refined the design and brought the innovation to the world of industrial design. General Motors was one of the first customers, using the screw in its Cadillac assembly lines, and the rest is furniture assembly history.
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