Outer space used to be the stuff of Star Trek and ET. Now, space is the new frontier for exploration and business. New technologies are bringing humans into deeper contact with space, giving us a better understanding of the universe beyond our planet. We spoke to SBV’s CEO Amit Raizada, the venture capitalist who recently added Terran Orbital to his long list of investments (including real estate, restaurant, gift certificates, biotech, and gaming ventures) about exciting space tech trends that may soon change the world (and the universe).
1) Reusable Rockets—Rockets cost millions of dollars to build, but, until a couple of years ago, they were for one-time use. After they delivered their payload of satellites, cargo, research projects, or astronauts into orbit, they would fall into the ocean and be lost forever. As Jeff Bezos, founder of space start-up Blue Origin, once put it, “It’d be like getting in your [Boeing] 747 and flying across the country and then throwing it away.” Now, several companies are working on developing reusable rockets, although only SpaceX has succeeded so far. That means that after the first stage of the rocket uses up its fuel and separates from the rest, it lands safely on a drone barge that ships it back to shore for another use, dramatically lowering the cost of space exploration.
2) Private Missions to the International Space Station—Axiom Space and SpaceX have signed a deal to send private astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX is providing the Crew Dragon flight, while Axiom has trained a commander. Three private astronauts will be aboard the flight as well. SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said, “Thanks to Axiom and their support from NASA, privately crewed missions will have unprecedented access to the space station, furthering the commercialization of space and helping usher in a new era of human exploration.” Axiom is also working on building its own space station, which will be part of the ISS for now, and will eventually detach and operate independently.
3) Space Tourism—While the Russian Space Agency actually sent seven tourists into space in the first decade of this millennium, space tourism is mostly still in the planning stages. “This… will be a special experience and a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Eric Anderson, space tourism company Space Adventures’ chairman, about an upcoming mission on a Crew Dragon SpaceX capsule. Those with $250,000 to spare can put themselves on a Virgin Galactic waiting list right now. Other companies, like Blue Origin, are also working on sending tourists on sub-orbital or orbital spaceflights. Orion Span is even working on the first space hotel. No space tourists have flown since 2009, but sometime in the next few years, a lucky few rich people may be able to experience weightlessness and see the earth as a blue and green marble floating in a black void.
4) Space Manufacturing—Made In Space and other companies are developing technologies to manufacture communications antennae, telescopes, and rocket repair essentials in space. Their inventions include 3-D printers that can work in microgravity, a system to create metal parts, and even a machine that recycles plastic trash into feedstock for the 3D printer, so that astronauts can solve problems as they arise. Made In Space Chief Engineer Michael Snyder said, “Demonstrating and validating recycling capabilities on the ISS is an important step towards developing sustainable manufacturing systems that will enable us to venture deeper into the solar system.”
5) Tiny Nanosatellites—Satellites used to be bulky monstrosities that cost a fortune. Now, companies like Terran Orbital are making nanosatellites and picosatellites that weigh just 1-10 kg. The small satellites are cheaper to make, quicker to produce, and easier to launch. “These new satellites are democratizing space exploration, enabling smaller nations and private companies to gain a foothold in the new space economy,” says Amit Raizada, CEO of SBV. These satellites can be used to observe the earth, sustain the “Internet of Things”, and test systems in biomedical research. They can even be launched in sets called constellations that compartmentalize tasks and serve as backups in case one satellite fails.