62 years ago, humankind launched our first object (a small satellite) into orbit…and just 12 years later, humans took their first steps on the moon. Against this backdrop, it seemed perfectly reasonable that we would see colonies on the Moon, Mars and in low earth orbits by the end of the century.
Unfortunately, the cost of sending something/anything into space back then was extraordinarily high (think billions of dollars), driven by governments as primary customers that were quite insensitive to price.
Then in 2002 came a young software entrepreneur who dreamed of sending a greenhouse to Mars. Shocked by the cost of launch, Elon Musk decided to start his own Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (now SpaceX). In 2004, another small company called Scaled Composites won a competition to send a person into space twice within three months; and they did it for a total program cost of ‘just’ US$20 million. And thus, Space 2.0 was born.
What’s different this time?
The hunt for profit. Space 2.0 is the second wave of growth for space tech and the global space industry, and it is being led by commercial players chasing commercial outcomes.
The use of miniaturised electronics. Early Space 2.0 companies have sent up toaster-sized satellites with similar capabilities to that of the fridge-sized satellites in the 1980’s.
Cost. Space 2.0 is all about providing goods and services to space, from space, and on the cheap. The combination of cheaper rocket launches from SpaceX, and cheaper small satellite manufacturing from many more players have allowed a new generation of entrepreneurs to enter the New Space industry.
Australia’s story in the stars
Meanwhile, new Australian space companies have emerged in the early 2010s focusing on satellite-related services (such as the Internet of Things) and small launch vehicles, attracting over A$60 million of investor funding.
Presented with evidence of a growing new industry, Australia launched its own space agency in 2018. And in 2019 (last month), the government announced a A$150 million program to help Australian companies develop technologies that could support NASA missions to the Moon and Mars.
This money, if well spent, could generate another $300-500 million of investments for Australian space companies, generating new high-skilled jobs and revenues for the country. A common five-year vision among the budding space players here is to build and launch a decent-sized satellite (the size of a small fridge) to space on an Australian rocket, from Australia.
With that ecosystem, Australia would be able to look beyond low earth orbits, to Moon missions with cargo resupply in orbit and on the surface; communications satellites deployed around the moon and Mars; and a multitude of small satellites orbiting around Earth for earth observation, communications and IoT connectivity.
In 20 years time, I think it’s reasonable for Australia to have a small space station in low earth orbit, or a module attached to an international moon base with Australian scientists and engineers living there. Commercial activity could be seen in cargo and personnel transportation, communication systems, off-Earth mining on the moon and on near-Earth asteroids.
It is possible too that we could see a solar system “land grab”, with countries landing on new areas of the Moon, Mars or asteroids, and claiming them for research purposes (similar to Antarctica). This could then be a spark for interplanetary trading of goods and services between moons, planets and asteroids.
Indeed, science fiction is slowly but surely becoming reality. There was a time this year when seven vehicles from three different countries were attached to the International Space Station. With Space 2.0 opening the door to all countries on Earth to participate in space commerce and exploration, Australia could well play a critical part in helping humanity reach for the stars.
Adam Gilmour is the CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies and 2019 Winner of the Advance Award for Advanced Manufacturing