This post isn’t about how to get rich in space related things, which is pretty hard actually, but rather my thoughts on what’s preventing space from becoming a huge commodity. If I had to point to one roadblock, it would be expensive Earth launches. The average cost to launch 1 kg into space is $5,000 – $10,000. So it costs about half a million dollars to launch the mass of a 135 lb person. That’s just the person, no spacesuit, spacecraft, food, air, etc. Add all the necessary equipment to keep the person alive, and you can see the costs growing very quickly. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars to design, build, and launch a large satellite into Earth orbit. Those satellites stay in orbit for 15+ years while doing their job. There’s a large market in commercial space right now, somewhere around $2 billion a year.
In the last 20 years, there has been a rapid growth of interest and use of small satellites, spearheaded by CubeSats. CubeSats are standardized small satellites defined in units of “U” where 1U is a 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm cube. The main structures and connections are also specified by the U standard. Thus you can assemble large CubeSats by putting multiple U’s together and have say a 3U CubeSat that is 30 x 10 x 10.
CubeSats have become so common that the major launch providers such as United Launch Alliance (ULA) have designed their vehicles to include space for CubeSats. The International Space Station even has a CubeSat launcher rack. All this interest in CubeSats is because they have the potential to revolutionize space, mainly by greatly reducing the cost of a satellite. Modern large satellites cost ~$100 million to build, while a 1U CubeSat can be bought for ~$50,000. Along with the continual miniaturization of electronics, an instrument that took up a shoe box volume could soon be shrunk to a small book. Then we can do more with smaller and lighter satellites, and thus the launch costs also decrease.
But for all the promise of small satellites, the market is moving very slowly. Small satellite launches are dominated by universities that build and launch CubeSats for educational purposes. There are a handful of commerical companies that are based on using cheap small satellites, but it’s not big, yet. I believe there is a market for small satellites waiting to be discovered. I don’t think that market will be related to the current space market which is mainly communications and observation. I think to truly explode the space market and get rich in space, we have to think outside the box, and look at entertainment in particular.
I’ll tell you why I think entertainment may be the future. Take the smartphone, which started in the late 90’s with PDA’s and Blackberry in the early 2000’s. Neither of those two technologies were widely adopted by the general public. They were typically reserved for business people partly due to the cost and the need. It wasn’t until the Iphone in 2007 that the smartphone market exploded. Now 8 years later, most people have a smartphone and new versions are released every year, and people buy those new versions every year. This creates a constant demand and thus market for smartphones. What smartphones provided that was revolutionary was not communications, “dumb” phones could do that. No, they provided constant entertainment and connectivity. Truthfully most of use use our smartphone for it’s phone purpose less than 10% of the time. The other 90% of the time it is used to play games, watch movies, visit websites, read books, and sometimes work. So we are opening our wallets every year or two not for better communications, but for faster and better personal entertainment.
Some of the things we Americans in particular spend lots of money on are smartphones, TV, computers, movies, music, and sports. You can probably see the trend that we willing spend lots of money to entertain ourselves. I believe this is what space technology needs to tap into, the human desire to be entertained. Unfortunately I don’t know what such a thing would look like. Football in space with CubeSats? Nascar in space? Real housewives of Mars? They all sound a bit crazy, but so did the ipad when it first came out. Whoever figures out the business model to combine entertainment and satellites will make a fortune, and I hope that person is a space enthusiast and uses some of the profit to help future develop the science and technology of space travel.