Members of the audience at the Dawn of Private Space Science 2018. Photo by Mark Jackson
NEW YORK, NY–The world is at the beginning of a new era in commercial space exploration that one speaker at the Dawn of Private Space Science 2018 (DPSS18), a symposium held at Columbia University June 2-3, described as the Internet of tomorrow.
Among the key points made by some 26 speakers from the United Nations, private industry and other organizations at the symposium: this new era could not only lead to important technological breakthroughs with many applications on Earth, but also impact global diplomacy as countries work together to make the most of growing opportunities.
“I would like to be very clear,” said Simonetta Di Pippo, director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). “Space is the internet of tomorrow, [and] countries that do not have access to it will be left behind.” She emphasized the importance of myriad partnerships to “ensure that all countries can make use of the information and wealth generated by space data, space technology, and space applications.” One recent success story: the collaboration between the UN and China that will allow the 193 member states of the UN to conduct experiments aboard China’s Space Station, which is expected to become operational in 2022.
The focus of DPSS18, now in its second year, was commercial space stations and the ecosystem of industries that will build and support them. “Clearly industry and the private sector will be major players in [this new] space era,” said Di Pippo. “Today industry has capabilities that were reserved to governments just a decade ago.”
Erika Wagner, business development manager at Blue Origin, put the current state of the commercial space era in context with an anecdote from Jeff Bezos, founder of both Amazon and Blue Origin (which performed the first successful reusable rocket landing). According to Bezos, Amazon was built thanks to an established base layer of capabilities like interstate shipping, credit cards, and the Internet.
That base layer doesn’t yet exist for applications in space, Wagner said, but “we’re starting to get there. And that’s really what Blue Origin is all about. It’s [about] making access to space so inexpensive that the next generation of entrepreneurs, scientists, and innovators can lay [new] applications on and take us to the next step.”
The DPSS18 theme of the privatization of space was timely given President Trump’s budget request for 2019, which calls for an end to US funding for the International Space Station (ISS) by 2025 but includes $150 million to support the commercial development of operations in low-Earth orbit (LEO). For over 15 years NASA has been working on transferring its work in LEO to the private sector with the ultimate goal of focusing its resources on the exploration of deep space.
Public versus private funding of space exploration was the focus of a question posed to a DPSS18 panel on the space industry. The general consensus of the panelists: there will always be a role for public funding, especially for projects that are too risky for industry to take on. “We often see in the history of many different fields…that government has been the trailblazer, and then gotten out of the way,” said Wagner. “And I think we’ll continue to see that in space.”
Funding of the space sector was also the focus of a talk by Shiva Dustdar of the European Investment Bank (EIB), the bank for the 28 member states of the European Union. Dustar noted that in the past the EIB has financed the more traditional sector of space companies that include, for example, those in the satellite business. That said, the EIB recognizes the potential disruptive impact of a new generation of companies, and it wants to support them. “There is really a transformation going on and we cannot just sit and wait,” she said. “A lot is happening.”
The unique environment of space allows research—and results—not possible on Earth. Scientists take advantage of three principal factors: microgravity, or weightlessness; the extreme nature of space, which includes dramatic fluctuations between hot and cold temperatures; and the unique view of Earth from space. The ISS, for example, flies about 250 miles above the Earth and completes 16 orbits of the planet every day. It can “see,” or cover, 90 percent of the planet’s populated areas.
Jennifer Lopez is the commercial innovation technology lead at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages the US National Laboratory aboard the ISS and was created to maximize its use. Lopez described several ongoing ISS research projects with industry managed by CASIS. They range from a study by Merck on new drug-delivery methods for one of their anti-cancer drugs to one by Budweiser on how barley seeds germinate in microgravity. The data from the barley study, she said, could influence how barley is grown on the ground.
Toward the Future
Several representatives from the space industry described their companies’ plans for the future. Wagner of Blue Origin, for example, noted that their next rocket—the New Glenn, scheduled for first launch in late 2020—will be capable of getting payloads “to the moon and beyond.”
Chris Cummins, chief commerce officer of Nanoracks, said his company’s vision is to ultimately create a whole series of orbiting outposts, or platforms, that can help drop off and pick up materials from space stations like the ISS or the new one being developed by China.
Many of the speakers noted that partnerships are key to the continued growth of a human presence in space. Said Cummins, “space is not going to be done by one company, one nation, alone. It’s going to be [developed by] a big system of lots of people doing various activities.” Concluded Di Pippo of the UN, “Partnership. Partnership. Partnership. It’s the only way to go far in a field like space.”
DPSS18 was organized by the nonprofit Science Partnership Fund, a nonprofit created to pave the way for foundations and corporations to support crowdfunding projects and public events in physics, astronomy and space exploration. The symposium was hosted by Columbia University.
Some 11 organizations sponsored DPSS18. Key among them: Blue Origin, the European Investment Bank, Elsevier, and the BoldlyGo Institute. Other sponsors include Tyvak, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, and Cosmos Magazine.
By Elizabeth A. Thomson