This is a follow-up or continuation of the previous post on small satellites and turning them into an entertainment service. The idea is based on the fact there is a lot more money available in the consumer’s pockets than government or big business. Today, the government funds the majority of work by businesses or academics, especially in space related areas. Aeronautics (airplanes and the like) does have it’s own commercial sector from the airlines and transpiration. However even there the government spends money to support their military aircraft. Now I am not advocating for small government or anything political. In fact I believe the government has a key role to play in technology development. But I think we as a society and the aerospace field need to start thinking outside the box, and it will likely being with startups.
There was an article in 2013 back on whether startups will revitalize the aerospace industry. This would have been during the meteoric rise of SpaceX who now has a major stake in space launches. But even Elon Musk’s SpaceX is still a government contractor, serving primarily NASA and soon the military. Other startups like Planet Labs or Planetary Resources have move away from pure government support and their business cases seems to focus more on providing cheaper orbital observation or other services. But those services will still likely be bought and used heavily by the government or business, so still not consumer focused..
Consumerization is designing products and services focused on and marketed to individual consumers/end users. This is in contrast with produces and services focuses mainly for the business or government market. Space tourism is marketed to individuals while space cargo is marketed towards government.
The most successful startups are in the internet/software, small electronics, and medical devices sectors. On the internet side you have companies like Twitter, Minecraft, Instagram. In small electronics you can find examples in Pebble smart watch, Nest smart home thermostat. In medical devices there are small companies such as AdhereTech, Pixie Scientific, and even Fitbit. All of these startups have a product that directly serves and is bought by the individual consumer, your average Joe. And there are lot more Joes out there than government agencies. So if we take the same idea and apply it to aerospace, would it work? To consummerize anything, it needs to have two key factors: affordable, and appealing/useful.
Lets take the example of launch vehicles and satellites. Getting a rocket into space is dangerous, complex, and expensive. The cheapest rocket you can get today is likely the Minotaur 1 at about $40 million. There are a few small companies such as Firefly and Rocket Labs who are developing small launch vehicles to deliver single CubeSats. But even thre the launchs cost >$1 million. If those costs can be reduced to <$100k, then you’d be approaching the price range that’s affordable by private citizens, though very rich ones still. Some may say that’s crazy, and not possible, but consider the hobby rocketry community. Hobby rockets can reach altitudes of a few miles using simple solid motors for hundreds of dollars. So there is already a group of people who are interested in launching rockets and do it for a very reasonable price.
Now we come to the second question: appeal. The hobby rocket community is strong, but relatively small. They launch for the thrill and the challenge. Your average person spends their money mainly for thrills and fun, not so much to be challenged. So the biggest question that needs to be answered for the consummerization of aerospace is how do you sell it to the individual? What does the average person want? How do you make space fun? My instinct says the answer can be found by looking at sport (football, baseball, racing, etc), but I don’t quite see the solution yet. But it’s some food for thought.