I've been seeing a lot of videos talking about how the "space industry" is "exploding" and soon to be a trillion dollar industry.

Obviously I know better than to just buy into the hype but I am curious: why are there so many startups/companies trying to get to space.

Economically speaking the only activities in space I could think of are:

  1. Tourism

  2. Weather Satellites

  3. Communication Satellites (Internet)

  4. Photography (Defense or Wall Street (Some hedge funds look at traffic patterns/parkinglot densities to predict trends))

  5. Scientific Apparatuses (ex: Telescopes)

Now of these really only (1,2,3,4) could be considered "free market" activities, as in someone makes a company that derives a profit from doing the activity (sadly without government funding I don't think its profitable to keep launching telescopes).

Tourism doesn't seem like a massive industry to me (it will be a small number of wealthy folk initially at least)

Offering Internet is very useful, but a large percentage of the world already does HAVE internet so I'd be very suspicious that this is more profitable than what companies like COMCAST already make (it probably is way less)

Weather streams again would be only paid for long term by militaries, research groups, and news stations

It's just not obvious to me that the sum total of these justifies the idea that theres a "trillion dollar future in space around the corner" and that "we need to launch as many startups right now to get there, it will be profitable!"

What other industries are there to do in space, right now, that I'm missing here? OR have I misjudged the profitability of some of these industries?

Caveat, obviously becoming a multiplanetary civilization mining and manufacturing goods on different space locations and transporting them would be an enormous endeavor likely to lead to many profits but we are nowhere near that level of technology right now. So I don't consider "mining" and "manufacturing" to be profitable activities in space at the moment: (unless someone knows things that are today believed to be better/easier manufactured in space)

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ For some unexplained reason somebody has down-voted your question (countering my up vote). It might be related to the title. I'd recommend something less eye-catching and more accurate like (just for example) "Why is the Space industry expected to flourish and grow in the near future? How do the many companies and investors explain why they are betting on it?" This allows for fact-based answers. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 18 at 4:08
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Ah understood, I made the changes $\endgroup$ Jun 18 at 4:10
  • $\begingroup$ "Economically speaking the only activities in space I could think of are"... the error is with you, not with space industry. Have you never heard of satellite tv? Ever used a GPS to navigate? $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Jul 15 at 13:00

Private companies have been trying to get into the launch business since the 80s (ORTRAG in Germany since the 70s), usually turning into a financial disaster for the investors. Several things have changed since then which makes for a more favorable business climate.

  1. New design and manufacturing tools, plus other rocket builders' experience to look back on, has reduced the cost of development and production, and reduced the number of explosions. That is extremely important, because private investors simply cannot handle the risk and losses that the government took on in the 60s. Rockets still go bad sometimes, but they've gotten pretty darn reliable.

  2. Technology related to satellites has become smaller, cheaper, and more capable. Satellites can do more at a lower cost, and being smaller makes them cheaper to launch. The standardized CubeSat form is 1x1x1 feet (they can be longer), and so-called nanosat standards are being developed for units even smaller than that. Standards, among other things, means off-the-shelf parts. The small size means, for instance, that dozens of cubesats can ride up in dispensers attached to a Centaur upper stage, piggy-backing on the primary payload's flight. Related, there are commercial ground station services, like Amazon and Leaf, so the users don't even have to build their own ground control stations. Access to space has never been cheaper or easier, and more people are finding reasons to launch something.

  3. The US government made a deliberate turn towards the commercial sector. For instance, contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (now owned by Northrup Grumman) to supply the space station, and contracts with SpaceX and Boeing to transport crew. Laws have been updated, and they're spreading money around trying to support a nascent commercial space sector that can operate without continuous infusions of government money. The goal, as described by former NASA director Jim Bridenstine, is that NASA will become just one more customer.

  4. All of that feeds the dreams of investors who want space tourism, asteroid mining, and that sort of thing. Personally, I don't think any of that can explain the industry as it stands today. They've been dreaming about space manufacturing for half a century now, and it's still speculative and exploratory. Today's space industry is largely driven by satellites.

  5. For all that, they've been talking about a "space revolution" for more than a decade. Particularly since the Ansari X Prize from 2004, which was to award the first twice-usable craft to get into space (orbit was not required). Crowds cheered on Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, waving signs that said things like "SPACESHIP 1, GOVERNMENT 0" and "WE'RE GOING TO SPACE AND THE GOVERNMENT ISN'T INVITED". That prize stimulated a lot of commercial ventures, most of which have shut down by now. Virgin Galactic and Virgin Space, which are Richard Branson further developing the technology of SpaceShipOne and White Knight, are the only remaining launch ventures I can think of that came out of that project. A lot of investors found out that space isn't just hard for the government. There has always been a lot of hype and high expectations for space industries, but I think we'll continue to see a slow evolution of capability. If a revolution were coming, I think it would have been here by now.

  • $\begingroup$ The standardized cubesat is 10cm x 10cm x 10cm or specific multiples of that. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Jul 15 at 12:06

The sheer amount of energy and materials available in space should be sufficient motive.

Here on Earth, we're limited by the matter that's here and the energy that's being delivered by the sun -- a tiny, miniscule cross-section of the star's total output. In space, we can start to make use of the enormous energies that have previously simply been escaping into the far reaches of the universe. New possibilities for waste disposal, material and energy collection, and many other endeavors abound.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think this is "near future" tech $\endgroup$ Jul 15 at 9:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.