Workforce Blog: Paradigm Shift

Jul 26, 2019

by Mahantesh Hiremath

As the country gets ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s Moon landing, the legacy of the Apollo program is well worth exploring. Nowhere is Apollo’s legacy clearer, or more exciting, than in the growth of the private space industry.

Historically, space exploration was the domain of governments, both the military and NASA and its civilian counterparts in Russia, Europe, China, India, and Israel. Yet in the United States, NASA’s public-private space partnerships inadvertently created the infrastructure needed for a truly commercial space industry.

This is because NASA, despite its many laboratories and facilities, relied on a vast network of academic researchers, small technology innovators, and large contractors to carry out its missions.

Today’s space entrepreneurs built on this infrastructure. They borrowed heavily from NASA technologies, studies, and designs. They tapped existing expertise to help refine their inventions, and they drew upon an established pool of experts to move their ideas from designs to rockets and satellites.

The result has been a profusion of companies developing systems to launch satellites, supply the International Space Station (ISS), and catapult humans into space. These startups include Bigelow Aerospace, Blue Origin, Civilian Space Exploration Team, Orbital Sciences (now Northrop Grumman), Relativity Space, Sierra Nevada Corp., Space Adventure, SpaceX, SpinLaunch, and Virgin Galactic.

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Their leaders include some of today's best-known entrepreneurs, including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Eric Anderson, and Mark Cuban. Many of these pioneers have put personal fortunes on the line with these ventures.

These innovators developed a broad range of technologies. SpaceX, for example, has flown 17 supply missions to the ISS and recently showed that it could land a reusable orbital rocket. Virgin Galactic is testing a rocket that launches tourists to the edge of space from a jet aircraft. Bigelow Aerospace is building space habitats. SpinLaunch plans to use a catapult to send payloads on their way. And Relativity Space is 3D printing rockets to launch small satellites.

This combined government and commercial infrastructure is worth a mind-boggling $345 billion. This includes everything from satellite services and ground equipment to orbital launch services, vehicle test and demonstration operations, and government space budgets.

While rockets get all the media coverage, satellites are at the heart of this emerging industrial behemoth. Today, they are used for everything from surveillance and navigation to communications, weather forecasting, agriculture, and resource exploration.

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Their growing significance shows up in the numbers. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, there are 2,000 functioning satellites in orbit today, up from 800 only 14 years ago.

The small satellite industry, in particular, is experiencing dynamic growth. This is due to advances in miniaturized electronics, which enable engineers to pack more of the capabilities of larger satellites into much smaller packages.

Companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, and, most recently, Amazon, all plan to launch thousands—not hundreds—of small, high-speed internet satellites. Silicon Valley is awash with startups—Planet Labs, Momentus, Orbit Fab, Astranis, Astro Digital, and Swarm Technologies—hoping to do something similar.

These satellites will whizz around only a few hundred kilometers above the Earth's surface. In the past, such low orbits decayed too fast to be viable. Today, however, this combination of size, low cost, and low launch costs have made small satellites economical to replace. The business is expected to grow to $60 billion over the next five years.

Satellites will also develop new capabilities by tapping artificial intelligence, data analytics, machine learning, and robotics. For example, NASA and several companies are experimenting with using robotic arms to refuel satellites, opening the door for more complex maintenance in the future. Another new concept involves assembling components into fully operational satellites while in orbit.

It is easy to focus on that one giant step of Apollo 11, but every day, the private companies that are innovating in space are making sure that space—from GPS and high-speed internet to better weather forecasts—plays an ever greater role in our lives. And ASME, with its programs for students and early career engineers, is ideally positioned to help develop the workforce for this exciting space industry.

Mahantesh Hiremath is senior technical director at SpinLaunch, Long Beach, Calif, and a past member of ASME’s Board of Governors.

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