Fueling the First Space-Based Economy
How we’re venturing forth to the Moon and beyond and untethering ourselves from old ideas and science.
January 25, 2023
When asked about how he envisions the space-based space economy 50 years from now, Clay Mowry, chief revenue officer of Voyager Space, pauses for a moment. He could take this conversation in six different directions. This is not surprising, considering that Voyager Space, a space station infrastructure and services provider founded in 2019, oversees six subsidiaries.
But he’s particularly animated about a few topics: the fact that we can finally cut metal in space, Moon exploration and space colonies, and the launch of the Starlab space station, which will reimagine the International Space Station (ISS) with 37 percent less volume — but 100 percent of the ISS payload capacity for research.
“I’ve been working in space for about 30 years, and I can tell you that right now is the most exciting time that I've ever been involved in the space business,” says Mowry, a self-described “O’Neillian by osmosis” who spent more than five years as a Blue Origin executive prior to joining Voyager Space in late 2021. “I think it's apparent, or it should be apparent to everyone, that we live on a precious planet with limited resources. We need space for sustainability, and we also need space for security here on planet Earth. So, we need to ultimately go to space and learn how to use what are really infinite resources.”
His enthusiasm for space’s untapped potential is trending.
Innovations such as in-space refueling, mineral mining, and biofabrication make it possible to dream of a future where humans can live and work in space without depending on Earth’s resources. As investments in new technology that challenges old ideas and science pick up, the “Great Untethering” has begun.
In September, representatives from the United States and nearly two dozen other nations that signed the Artemis Accords to work together to assure safe, sustainable utilization and exploration of space met for the first time at the International Astronautical Congress in Paris. And while China and Russia were notably absent signatories, they have set into motion their own ambitious plans for space exploration that could stoke new geopolitical tensions while driving competition. Meanwhile, other government-funded commercial partnerships are brewing, like NASA’s $160 million contract with Voyager, its subsidiary Nanoracks, and Lockheed Martin to design the Starlab commercial space station, and similar awards to Axiom Space and Northrop Grumman.
The hope is that these initial government and private investments will drive a new future brimming with economic activity that will benefit Earth’s inhabitants.
“One hundred years from now, I see humanity becoming multiplanetary,” says Rob Meyerson, an aerospace engineer and 30-year space industry veteran and former president of Blue Origin. “We'll start to see more companies and customers having in-space production-level capacity towards the end of the decade. Certainly in 10 years, you're going to see businesses starting to set up either research and development or small quantity production in space. I think a realistic future in the 2030s is that a Fortune 500 company has a dedicated module, or a dedicated facility in Low-Earth Orbit [LEO].”
Yet as contracts are awarded and research and development kicks into high gear, so are the questions: How will geopolitical tensions between China and the U.S. play out when it comes to mining the Moon? How much financing do private companies need for their visions to materialize into tangible solutions? And how will our push into space impact humanity, now and in the future?
With the current ISS scheduled to be decommissioned by 2031, companies like Axiom Space, Blue Origin, and Voyager are reimagining the next generation of space stations, or successors to the ISS, as more user-friendly, capable, agile, and flexible hubs that will engender new types of collaboration and research.
“When the International Space Station is retired towards the end of this decade, Axiom will separate their attached station from the ISS and become a free-flying space station,” says Meyerson. “In many ways, they're set up to be the natural successor to the ISS. There are other companies working on their own versions that are starting off as free-flying space stations, and NASA is funding several of them.”
The Axiom Station, for example, will serve customers in human spaceflight, R&D, in-space manufacturing, technology demonstration, and marketing and entertainment, he adds.
Others, like Sierra Space, plan to build out vibrant ecosystems that will enhance life on Earth: NASA recently awarded Sierra Space, along with Blue Origin and others, a $130 million contract to design, build and operate Orbital Reef, a space business park that will offer opportunities in commerce, research and space tourism, to name a few. In the meantime, Sierra’s also working on building its Dream Chaser, a multi-mission space utility vehicle designed for transporting crew and cargo to and from LEO destinations, including the ISS.
“The next great industrial revolution is occurring just 250 miles above our heads,” says Sierra Space’s CEO Tom Vice. “In this era — perhaps the most profound chapter in human history — civilization pivots from flying a handful of astronauts to a government-run space station to transporting thousands of people on a fleet of spaceplanes to a constellation of commercial space destinations where they live and work for months at a time.”
This pivot, Vice says, will enable new applications that weren’t possible previously.
“Every single human being on this planet will benefit from the breakthrough innovations made possible in microgravity. I was just at the University of California, San Diego, after we signed a partnership agreement to develop the first stem cell research institute in space. This means the highly impactful work that researchers are already doing on the International Space Station today can expand and deliver an even greater impact for humanity when Sierra Space builds new, state-of-the-art biomanufacturing, bio-fabrication, and in-space laboratory capabilities,” he says.
Microgravity allows researchers to study stem cell aging and pre-cancer development in a way that is just not possible on Earth, he adds, which could lead to eradicating cancer at its earliest stages.
There are other healthcare use cases, too.
In November, Redwire’s new Bio Fabrication Facility (BFF) launched to the ISS. The BFF is a dedicated space-based laboratory attached to the ISS that will leverage 3D bioprinter technologies to manufacture human tissue in microgravity. In 2020, Redwire’s BFF successfully printed human heart tissue samples and after launching back to the International Space Station in November of this year. Redwire’s BFF will be permanently installed on the ISS and will be used to print a human knee meniscus using bioinks and cells in the coming months. The long-term goal is to use 3D bioprinting technologies to help alleviate organ shortages for patients in need of transplants by printing replacement organs and tissues.
“We were the first company to ever 3D print on orbit on the International Space Station,” says Peter Cannito, chairman and CEO of Redwire. So, whether it’s printing crystals for pharmaceuticals, which we've already been doing on the ISS, or our bone densitometer, which is being used to explore rapid degradation and [generate data] that would be beneficial to the research of osteoporosis … or whether it's the meniscus printing application, Redwire is doing all of this now.”
Redwire also has its stake in space-based commerce — the company made money off selling crystals for industrial purposes grown in the ISS (the first-ever transaction involving goods manufactured in space) and is building what it calls the first-ever commercial greenhouse in space.
“In the next ten years, I think we’ll see organizations actually going into production and manufacturing and a mature sales cycle, where we are producing a variety of drugs, a variety of agro-business,” says Mike Gold, Redwire’s executive vice president of Civil Space & External Affairs. “As the world faces existential threats like climate change, microgravity and space will be a means of tackling and solving some of the biggest problems that we have here on Earth.”
The idea of humans living on the Moon, while far off, is also now squarely in the realm of possibility. That’s because the Moon’s unique composition and characteristics — from its mineral-rich soil (“regolith”) to its untapped craters filled with water that can be repurposed into fuel — make it one of the most promising destinations for mining, commerce, and even habitation.
“The amount of energy it takes to get from Earth to Low-Earth Orbit is actually pretty close to the amount of energy it takes to get from Low-Earth Orbit to higher, more useful orbits, or to deep space, and to take all the fuel that we need from Earth is really expensive,” says Alex Gilbert, an engineer and public policy expert who is currently pursuing a PhD in space resources at the Colorado School of Mines.
“If we can start producing some amount of fuel in space and refueling in space, that enables us to do a lot more for those Earth services, but also start doing other really cool things, like space exploration, potentially defense activities, and then commercial activities on places like the Moon,” he says. “Then it starts becoming a self-fulfilling cycle where you have space services for space activities.”
While near-earth Asteroids potentially harbor water resources, they take longer to get to and pin down. The Moon’s cycles and composition are more predictable.
“One of the major discoveries of the last 15 to 20 years of lunar science is that the Moon might be covered in water,” says Gilbert. “We know that it definitely has large deposits of water on the south poles and the north poles in permanently shadowed craters. That is potentially at high-enough concentrations to easily mine. You can essentially go there, grab that water, and with simple processes it can be broken down and used for rocket fuels. The Moon also potentially has all other sorts of volatiles. It might also have dry ice deposits, where you can get carbon for methane engines.”
Over the next 10 years or so, Meyerson predicts the Earth-to-Moon transport network — lunar landers, launch vehicles, and so forth — will be up and running.
Once competing services and price completion is in place, new companies will be built on top of the infrastructure to take advantage of the resources on the Moon and other planetary bodies.
“The lunar regolith is made up of water, industrial metals, and solar wind volatiles, like Helium 3. These resources are things that can be utilized in a future in-space economy or, if the price is right, brought back and sold on Earth. I emphasize the price being right — the price of space access must continue coming down over the next decade like it has over the past decade,” Meyerson says.
But as competition kicks up for these resources in the U.S., other nations have their own plans for harnessing the Moon’s bounty — as well as resources derived from other planetary destinations, like Mars.
“There’s definitely substantial risk of what happens in space spilling over into conflict on Earth, and that is, in part, being driven by the fact that the U.S. and China are emerging as competitive space powers,” says Gilbert, who describes the current environment as “whoever gets there first gets to use it.
“There is the potential that if the U.S. and China, say, target the same site, that they could clash or have issues,” he says. “How do we make sure to balance that so we don't have a mission landing on top of each other anytime soon?”
Multiple challenges — and our ability to address them — will affect our progress, including when and how these plans materialize.
“A strong space economy starts with lowering the cost of access,” says Meyerson. “We’ve already seen the impact that companies like SpaceX have had on the space economy, lowering the cost of access, but we haven’t seen the benefits from reusability because there's no reusable orbital booster competing with Falcon 9, yet.”
Sierra Space’s Vice also echoed the need for lower access costs and better space transportation systems, as well as “flexible, inflatable space module technologies” to build space stations that have the necessary useable volume in space with the fewest launches. Also, ensuring that LEO is a safe and sustainable place to operate, which means cleaning up space debris and ensuring that nations on Earth don’t cause future issues with orbital debris, is top of mind.
“We need the right regulatory environment that ensures the U.S. can lead the commercialization of space,” says Vice. “Space must be for everyone.”
Specifically, regulations should enhance growth and support entrepreneurship, rather than dragging it down, says Gold. He believes the U.S. can make progress in national supervision of private sector activity in space, per Article Six of the Outer Space Treaty.
“We need to ensure that continuing supervision is done in a way that enhances private sector growth, entrepreneurialism, [and] innovation, and doesn't detract or deter from it,” he says. “We’re hoping for a regime that is based on self-certification that is transparent and that will help us realize this future and avoid needless bureaucracy that could prevent us from moving forward because we're not the only nation pursuing this. The only question is, does China reap those benefits or does the U.S. and the free world reap those benefits, which is why getting a constructive regulatory system in place as soon as possible is critical.” VS