Space stations, the private gold rush

Space stations, the private gold rush

Space stations

" Whether your business is scientific research , the development of exploration systems, the invention and production of new and unique products, media and advertising or exotic hospitality , you will find a place here ". It looks like the announcement of a pro loco, or the slogan of a new real estate campaign. In some ways it is, given that this is what Blue Origin writes in  a presentation of Orbital Reef , the space station that Jeff Bezos' company wants to build 500 kilometers from the Earth as part of  NASA's "Cld" program (or Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations ).

With an initial investment of $415 million allocated to three different projects - which in addition to Orbital Reef include Nanoracks' Star Lab, Voyager Space Holdings and Lockheed Martin, and another Northrop outpost Grumman and Dynetics - the goal of the program is to put habitable (US) infrastructure into orbit before the International Space Station is decommissioned, i.e. by 2030. And provided that until then the ISS survives, considering that the will to abandon depends on the date, repeatedly heralded by Russia , which in any case has made official until 2027 , and the lack of an official agreement from the other partners involved: ESA , Canada and Japan.

The uncertainty of the epilogue, its approaching, the importance of a human garrison in the lowest Earth orbit and, no less important, the fact that China already boasts its own station in orbit , make an urgent question: what will happen after the ISS? With what impacts and economic prospects? And, if we want to be more meticulous, what will Europe's role be once the collaboration that has allowed peaceful extraterrestrial coexistence for over twenty years is concluded?

A closed-door meeting - to which had exclusive access - organized in recent days by Sda Bocconi's Space Economy Evolution Lab, an organization increasingly oriented towards creating strategic synergies in a sector, attempted to respond. the space one, with an enormous geopolitical and economic reach. " Our ambition is to offer the tools to encourage the generation of ideas - said the director of the See Lab, Simonetta Di Pippo, at the opening of the symposium - the applied research we conduct must be correlated to dissemination and training: building talent is the basis for consolidating the strategic positioning of our country and of Europe in the space economy, the cornerstone of sustainable development”.

The phases of the project

Regarding the first theme, the post ISS, the intentions, at least those of the United States, are precise: the Cld program foresees two phases. In the first, of " design and maturation " until 2025 , the recipients of the funding will work with NASA to define the technical characteristics of each project. The purpose is to satisfy both government and private needs. This latter point is already revealing of a spatial horizon perceived as an area of ​​growing economic development, bearer of requests and commercial interests even of companies hitherto unrelated to the sector.

In the second phase, NASA provides for the evaluation of the projects and, only at that point, the purchase of space and time on the outposts. It is a significant novelty, which will make the space agency only a "customer" and will allow you to save money. " The new space stations occupy a large part of my time - commented Phil McAlister, who manages the Commercial space flight at NASA - in recent years, with the development of the commercial sector, at NASA we have gone from being owners and operators of a , for example the Space Shuttle , to the simple purchase of services from private individuals. With this approach we would like to extend the life of the ISS to 2030 and, if possible already by 2028, have other stations operational. To do this, we will aim to gradually transfer our activities to commercial stations, gradually reducing those on the ISS".

McAlister's plan calls into question the fourth and most advanced project for a commercial space station, that of the Texan Axiom: not included in the Cld, the 400 million dollar contract for the construction of the first private outpost of the history – to which the Italian Thales Alenia Space will also contribute – belongs to the Commercial Destination ISS of NASA and not, like the other three, to the Commercial Destination Free Flyer. Technicalities aside, it means that while Orbital Reef or Star Lab will be autonomous as soon as they are put into orbit, the Axiom station will first constitute an offshoot of the ISS - the so-called "Axiom Segment" - and, only after the decommissioning of the latter, a station independent. Already under construction , the first Axiom module should be launched by the end of 2025 .

“ Four are planned - explained Tejpaul Bhatia, the company's chief revenue officer -. The first two will provide living space, the third will be a laboratory for earth observation and the last one a power station, to make us independent”.

An illustration of the Axiom Station, already under construction also in the Thales Alenia Space facilities (image: Axiom Space)

The low orbit market

Since design phase, the Axiom Station confirmed a different conception of low orbit, shared by the entire symposium organized by the See Lab and understood as an area of ​​economic development capable of attracting institutions, customers and different countries.

“ I believe that our solution can make access to orbit a priority, sustainable and permanent - confirmed Bhatia - and starting today. It is an opportunity not previously available, but now also on the table of nations without a large space program. This explains the choice of countries with which we have partnered, including Italy, Hungary, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, New Zealand and Canada. It is evident that the new access to orbit represents an advantage for many ”.

Expressed otherwise, it is the promise of an extra-atmospheric wealth available to those with the foresight and the ability to tap into it. As well as the courage to do so, given that if it is easy to identify the areas that would benefit enormously from experimentation and services in orbit - from pharmaceuticals to cosmetics, from the production of new materials to tourism, up to heavy industry, as Bezos himself did understood in one of his famous speeches in 2019 -, it is far more complex to quantify the economic extent of those advantages, even in spades.

"I would divide the market into three types - commented Logan Ware, head of business development at Blue Origin -. The first is represented by the many applications that space agencies have been developing in low orbit for more than thirty years: it is a well-known market, which we know how to manage but without much room for growth. The second, that of the new Leo applications, is made up of a wide range of commercial activities: media, entertainment, advertising. We find its prospects promising, although difficult to quantify right now. The third type of market, on whose economic entity Blue Origin is very optimistic, consists of people, tourism, the possibility of offering a growing audience the spatial experience. Since last July, when we started just with our founder , we have launched beyond the atmosphere 31 people. We believe it is only the beginning of a very large slice of a new market. As Brent Sherwood wrote in a famous article at the end of the 1990s, the common need today is to create a "mixed-use business park", which finally allows access to space to be commercialised. It means preparing the necessary infrastructure and encouraging customers to do business beyond the atmosphere".

A seduction that should be driven by the progressive reduction in launch costs and by the extraordinary nature of the space environment , capable of guaranteeing irreproducible conditions, for example, for scientific and technological experimentation.

Confirmed by Veronica La Regina and Eric Stallmer, head of operations of Nanoracks Europe, the first, and Executive vp government affairs and public policy of Voyager Space Holdings, the second: “ We want to provide simplified access to orbital infrastructures and study the Earth to accelerate discovery and innovation, all for the benefit of a global user community, where 'global' takes on unprecedented importance. Our project is not only American, it is a collaboration with agencies and companies scattered everywhere. Star Lab, whose fulcrum will be the George Washington Carver Science Park, already has a primary objective today: to facilitate scientific experiments through a community-first approach, which will help researchers and scholars from all over the world to outline the hardware and they will need in order to then have them available in orbit”.

The process is already underway “ We have just signed an agreement with the Ohio State University and we are collaborating with the International Association of Science Parks – Stallmer specified – when Star Lab is complete, presumably by 2028, it will start a new chapter, in which we will be open to commercial operations and not only bound by government procedures”.

2 December 2019: Luca Parmitano works outside the International Space Station (photo: NASA/ESA)

Billions of investments

“ We must become the next Google or Amazon, otherwise we will have failed – Bathia summed up again -. When it comes to the future space market, experts and research evoke billions of dollars of potential demand, while other studies indicate even trillions. In a market, however, which will reach its maximum expansion in ten or twenty years. The issue, which I don't think concerns only Axiom but many of the players involved, is that a few billion is not enough: the development of a commercial ecosystem in low orbit requires very high investments. We need to be a trillion-dollar capitalization company. Not in a decade or two, right now.”

It seems that the prospect does not discourage, indeed, the opposite is more true. “I worked at Google - commented the cro of Axiom - and I have the perception that this moment, in the space sector, replicates the path of the internet. At its beginnings, between 1993 and '94, no one predicted phenomena like Uber, Netflix or Airbnb, but everything was made possible thanks to companies that chose to invest billions in operating systems, in the talent of many young people, in infrastructures, such as fiber for example. They anticipated the entire investment and split it. Today many think that the internet is free: it is not. The Internet was and is very expensive. In order for everyone, tomorrow, to enjoy the treasures of space, the same attitude of Google and Amazon of then is needed today".

A fitting analogy, that between the space industry and some pioneers of Silicon Valley, not surprisingly also used by Bezos or Elon Musk: the future digital unicorns contributed to the technological infrastructure necessary for their business and exploited the existing in a new way (the credit card, the personal computer, the postal system). So they built upon it, in turn creating hitherto unimagined businesses. The low-orbit space stations will form the basic infrastructure, which will facilitate the business of third parties, who will be given the opportunity to exploit a unique environment in their own way.

“We are not looking for a market, but founding an economy – commented Andrei Mitran, director of strategy and business development of Northrop Grumman, a historic company in the sector -. There are some markets that build on each other, a network effect that we believe can be generated by space. We're wondering what's being done on Earth that could be done better beyond the atmosphere. We have identified at least six different markets and although today it is impossible to quantify their growth, we are optimistic".

A render of the future Axiom Station, which could be the first private outpost in history (image: Axiom Space)

The four American stations

The first is the Axiom Station. "Construction is underway," reports the Houston-based company's website. A construction not included in NASA's Cld program (it has a funding of 400 million dollars), its interior is signed by the French designer Philip Stark ("to truly contemplate our place in the Cosmos"). The first module, built in Turin by Thales Alenia Space, should connect to the ISS by the end of 2025, constituting an extension from the bow hatch of the Harmony module. The last of the four modules is scheduled to launch in 2027, then, upon decommissioning of the International Space Station, Axiom Station will be separated to become an independent outpost. Perhaps the first, of a commercial nature, in history.

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