Reasons why an everyday Earthling could ignore Space

by JMill. March 15, 2024 | Space for Earthlings 🌏🛰️

Is growth of the Space industry overhyped, the market saturating, and  returns diminishing for new entrants? Proponents of this argument may point to the dot-com bubble in the early 2000s, which saw many Internet companies fail as the market became oversaturated. While the space industry may face saturation, businesses can focus on niche markets and applications to mitigate risks and maximize returns. Planet Labs specializes in high-resolution Earth imaging and successfully serves a niche market within the broader satellite industry.

Might the adoption of space-derived technology lead to high research and development costs with uncertain returns on investment? There are emerging technologies that may not prove commercially viable. The Concorde supersonic jet was a technological marvel, but high development and operational costs made it commercially unsustainable, despite being in service for nearly three decades. While Concorde investors have long ago taken their losses and soured the aviation industry toward supersonics, there is a new generation of low-boom craft that might become financially tenable. The NASA Quesst program has a the mission to provide sufficient data to rewrite aviation regulations to permit overland supersonic operation. (The ‘sonic boom’ common to historical supersonic craft is a thunderous sound audible to everyday earthlings that led U.S. regulators and other governments banning most supersonic flight over land.)

Companies can leverage partnerships and government programs to minimize R&D costs while maximizing the benefits of space-derived technology. Public-private partnerships are routinely utilized by Space entrepreneurs to partner with the U.S. government to develop goods and services based on existing research and technology development, along with grant support. The government provides resources and expertise through agencies that not only include NASA, but also the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Small Business Administration (SBA), and the Department of Energy (DOE).The Office of Space Commerce provides access points spanning the U.S. government.

Establishing a proprietary satellite communications asset is difficult for small organizations to afford. The high initial cost of deploying a satellite network can be prohibitive, limiting their ability to capitalize on satellite communications. However, as satellite technology continues to advance, costs are decreasing, making it more accessible and affordable for businesses of all sizes. The decreasing cost of launching CubeSats has enabled even small businesses and startups to access space-based communication services. Upstart companies such as Loft Orbital are catering to organizations by providing end-to-end satellite design, launch, and management services. For example, a terrestrial business with Space aims could approach Airbus and work with their satellite teams to build a viable craft, but this would still require incredible amounts of effort on behalf of the hiring business to ensure the successful cradle-to-grave design, development, deployment, and decommissioning of the craft. If managing satellites is not an organization’s primary line of business, hiring Loft Orbital as a value-add Space liaison could generate a greater net present value for the customer organization while mitigating execution risk.

Could streamlining supply chains with Space-based solutions prove unnecessary and costly for companies with simpler, more efficient terrestrial options? Many local or regional businesses might find it more cost-effective to rely on existing ground-based logistics trackers and networks rather than invest in space-based technologies. While terrestrial options may suffice, the potential for global reach provided by space-based solutions can offer competitive advantages. For example, global shipping companies like Maersk utilize satellite-based navigation systems to optimize routes and reduce transit times.

Environmental sustainability practices can leverage Earth observation data, but could the impact of satellite data be minimal since most businesses will struggle to translate this data into actionable strategies? Indeed, there are companies that might find it challenging to reconcile the vast amount of satellite data with their specific sustainability goals and mandates, leading to limited tangible results. This has been one of the biggest bottlenecks of the industry, but the logjam is loosening quickly. By collaborating with specialized data analysis companies, businesses can effectively utilize satellite data to inform and improve their sustainability practices. Descartes Labs uses artificial intelligence and satellite imagery to help businesses optimize usage of water and land, ensuring more sustainable practices. Ursa acquires voluminous amounts of data from its large synthetic aperture radar system, but the raw data itself is not very useful for end-users – SAR data needs to be processed by teams with incredibly specialized skillsets that very few organizations have (or should have) beyond certain unique customers such as the National Reconnaissance Office.

If “we” as a business or “we” as a society invest in Space-focused workforce development, will this divert resources away from more immediate talent needs within a company’s core business areas or a society’s economic foundation? It would be generally unwise for a company specializing in the automotive industry to prioritize investment in Space-related workforce development versus electrified powertrain technologies. However, if said company neglects to recognize the new capabilities that are coming online and changes to consumer expectations (some of which are instigated by or addressable with Space-based technologies), the company may find itself in a vulnerable position that trends toward becoming irrelevant among industry peers and new market entrants. Active phased arrays and curved and flexible solar ‘skin’ changes  how and where automobiles can become rolling communications platforms, and thus evolving past an automobile’s traditional function of getting ‘from Point A to Point B’. For example, some automobile manufacturers incorporate capabilities within utility vehicles that are not strictly for transportation purposes, such as multi-kilowatt power generators and other ‘off-grid’ features, whether for consumer interests such as camping or for conducting in-field power-intensive  industrial operations (such as welding) in remote or under-served regions. When a business’s leadership team is engaged with their current customer base and looking to expand deeper and broader, having the business’s workforce looking across multiple domains, including Space, can help businesses help their customers’ transition to some better future state, rather than the business trying to resist change and to restrain its customer base from accessing new capabilities and product-services. By demonstrating a genuine commitment to Space involvement, businesses can attract and retain talent who seek innovative and forward-thinking employers. Apple’s expanded partnership with Globalstar for satellite-enhanced iPhone connectivity has helped Apple attract top talent from the Space industry, contributing to its reputation as a tech leader.

Engaging in strategic space collaborations could create financial and operational risks, as partnerships might not deliver the expected outcomes or could fail altogether. The partnership between Google and WorldVu Satellites (later OneWeb) dissolved in 2015 due to disagreements over project control. There is always a possibility of an intractable collaboration, since organizations are composed of squishy, non-deterministic biological creatures called Earthlings. Sometimes people work together awesomely and other times, relationships are doomed from the start. Businesses can mitigate the risks of space collaborations by conducting thorough due diligence and choosing partners with aligned goals and values. For example, automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have begun establishing relationships with Space companies, such as Toyota’s work with Iona Space Systems to utilize satellite communications for navigation and autonomous driving. (Review this article for an overall industry perspective.)


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