by Micah Walter-Range, Space Foundation Director - Research and Analysis
The space community has made many promises during the decades of its existence, and it has delivered on quite a few of them. It has brought about a more connected world and taught us more than we ever would have known about our planet, had we been strictly confined to the atmosphere.
Every day, we benefit either from services being actively supported by assets in space, or from spinoff technologies that have been so thoroughly integrated into other industries that we forget their space heritage. But those are past promises -- what about the ones that remain to be fulfilled?
One of the longest-standing promises (or set of promises) is outlined in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. It states that the parties to the treaty recognize "the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes" and believe "that the exploration and use of outer space should be carried on for the benefit of all peoples irrespective of the degree of their economic or scientific development." So, how are we doing on in terms of providing people with access to these benefits?
Access to the wealth generated by space
The space industry has turned out to be a generator of wealth for those nations that participate in the space economy. There was $329 billion in economic activity in 2016, with commercial revenues adding up to $253 billion, or a little more than three-quarters of the space economy. At a more fundamental level, and more importantly for the majority of the world's population not directly involved in the space industry, space has enabled the growth of new sectors such as ride-sharing companies and a seemingly endless stream of other location-based services that pour out of Silicon Valley and other innovation centers.
Despite the economic successes, there is still substantial work to be done to bring the full range of benefits to "all peoples." Most of the new services that depend on the space industry are created for developed markets, and most of the associated revenue is accrued by companies in developed nations. It will be interesting to see whether some of the new communications and Earth observation companies will be able to deliver a meaningful level of service to disadvantaged regions at a price point that works both for the customers and the companies themselves. This is something that the industry has struggled with in the past, and the outlook remains hazy.
Access to Earth orbit
The ability to place payloads in orbit is a fundamental enabler (or barrier) for deploying new technology. The years 2014, 2015 and 2016 had three of the four highest orbital launch rates in the past two decades, which sounds like we are heading in the right direction. However, we are still talking about annual launch rates in the mid-80s to low 90s. Some launch providers are pushing technology in potentially useful directions with reusable vehicles and other advances in manufacturing and operations that may bring the cost down, but it would still be a stretch to say that access to space is truly regular and reliable enough that a launch customer can purchase service without months to years of lead time.
Looking at the number and types of spacecraft being deployed, there is a clear boom in the number of small satellites going into orbit. More operators are taking advantage of improvements in smallsat technology both to test new concepts and conduct commercial operations. As of the end of September 2017, more than 350 spacecraft had been launched from Earth or deployed from the International Space Station, exceeding the full-year total of 296 spacecraft in 2014 (the high point for the past two decades). Of the spacecraft launched so far in 2017, more than 290 had masses of 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) or less, which puts them in the smallsat category. Within that number, more than 230 were nanosatellites, with masses of 10 kilograms (22 pounds) or less.
The most popular type of mission among these smallsats is remote sensing and Earth observation. This is one of the areas that delivers very effectively on the promise of space -- providing billions of humans with knowledge about their surroundings.
Access to habitats in space
The vision of humans living and working in space on a continuous basis is a promise that has been met, with qualifications. Depending on what happens over the next decade or so, there are two likely paths. The first is a replay of the Apollo program -- once the International Space Station is no longer supported by the current multinational partnership, the associated capabilities and expertise are retired and any future efforts require reinvention practically from scratch. The second option is a smooth transition after the ISS program reaches its end; this would require commercial operators or another nation to have developed the capability to keep people in orbit aboard a station that may or may not include portions of the ISS.
It is encouraging to see companies such as Bigelow Aerospace building hardware for commercial habitats, and others such as Axiom Space laying the groundwork for both hardware deployment and operational elements such as astronaut training. The development of commercial transportation capabilities by SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada has also reached a point where it is reasonable to suppose that there will be at least one option available to support commercial space station operators when the time comes. With these elements coming into alignment, it looks as though there is a good chance the space industry will be able to maintain and even expand upon our collective ability to sustain humans in space, delivering on that promise to a greater extent than in the past.
Access to deep space
The theme of this year's World Space Week (Oct. 4-10) is "Exploring New Worlds in Space." This is a promise both for our generation and generations to come. There are many exciting missions underway at space agencies around the world, and there is also the prospect of privately funded exploration as commercial organizations seek to land on the Moon as part of the Google Lunar X PRIZE, go prospecting for minerals among asteroids, and potentially provide transportation services to Mars. Those are all events that we at the Space Foundation look forward to documenting and analyzing...when they happen. Mark these promises as unfulfilled, but possibly close in some cases.
Access to the future
The space industry as a whole is one that is based on a vision of the future. Even the companies that are focused solely on providing services to customers on Earth benefit from the work their peers are doing to push the boundaries of human activity ever outward. Looking at the list above, there is no shortage of work to be done to ensure that humanity (and preferably a larger portion of it) benefits from the next leaps in capability, as the space community delivers on the promises that we make to the world.
Walter-Range earned a bachelor's degree in astronomy and political science from Swarthmore College, Pa., and a master's degree in international science and technology policy, with a concentration in space policy, from George Washington University, Washington, D.C. As Space Foundation Director - Research & Analysis, he directs production of the annual publication The Space Report: The Authoritative Guide to Global Space Activity. Learn more about this publication, and how to subscribe to more than 10 years of data from The Space Report, here.