Nearly 50 years ago, humanity stood in solidarity with one another as we watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take their first steps on the surface of the moon. The moment set a new precedent for our future – one of hope and possibility for overcoming what, until then, had been deemed impossible. In the decades since the Cold War-era space race, world governments and politicians have put space-related initiatives more or less on the back burner, allowing for entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Sir Richard Branson to launch their own space-related privatized initiatives in the forms of Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic, respectively.
While these entrepreneurial giants are battling it out for a market share of the emerging commercial space economy, one entrepreneur is wondering how those companies seek to help build a commercial space economy when we aren’t even sure of what business in space looks like. We sat down with Tim Chrisman, Founder and CEO of Foundation For the Future, to ask him what he thinks the emerging space economy will look like – and what we need in order to reach once more beyond the stars.
Tim, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today. To start off, what are we actively doing in space today?
Thanks for having me! It’s an exciting time to be anywhere near space right now, it almost feels like space has turned into the Internet of the late 1990s. It’s cool, it’s hip, and we’ve got these three billionaires competing with each other for who can get the biggest prize in space, where just 10 years ago it was the government funding pretty much all space development. Now with over $10 billion invested in space, it’s becoming a truly independent ecosystem that isn’t fully dependent on the government.
It’s amazing to see because it’s not even profit-based, right? These are all possibilities for the future, so where do you think those profits will come from and how far off do you think we are from seeing them?
We’ve had almost 70 years since Apollo, and it’s felt like this slow grind until the last few years. Even though there’s no one living or working in space now, look at how Bezos built Amazon. He built it on federally-funded roads with local power utilities that gave him a backbone foundation to build upon. We’ve seen that throughout history with explorers, but it’s not until that infrastructure is built that profits can start coming through. But we’re starting to see that now in space with the likes of these billionaires. What I’m excited to see are things we take for granted making their way into the space economy, like navigation and advanced materials. Everyone thinks of GPS when they talk space navigation, but GPS doesn’t work once you leave orbit. With materials, 100 years ago aluminum was a hot market, but now it’s graphene, and the ease of creating and accessing this material it’s absolutely absurd. Ford has nearly a million Mustangs driving around right now with graphene in them.
So with all these investments into space, how are they going to turn a profit with space colonization and travel?
It’s all about knowing your market. That aspect of space is no different than Earth right now. Branson has made it clear that his target market for Virgin Galactic is wealthy individuals. Musk is sponsoring high-net-worth individuals for a trip around the moon later this year. What better way to ensure you retain higher profit margins than appealing to wealthier individuals with higher net worth? It’s a beautiful model. Branson seeks to bring people into “technical space” – that part of space where you get zero-Gs and can see the Earth’s curvature – on smaller, shorter trips. Bezos and Musk are both proposing multi-day trips where you orbit Earth or go to the Moon and back for a couple of days. Branson’s model will cost a few hundred thousand dollars, but you’re looking at a few million dollars for multi-day trips. Some hotel companies like Hilton have even mentioned their interest in licensing rooms in space, so these folks have somewhere nice to stay, too, though a weekend stay at an orbital hotel may cost a few million dollars.
But a lot of these travelers will be able to afford that, right?
Exactly, and while a few million dollars is nothing to balk at, a lot of people are able to afford that. It’s not an absurd amount for those interested early adopters. I think a lot of what will drive those early adopters is that sense of adventure; “going where no one has gone before”. It’s what brings people to explore new caves or climb Mount Everest. It’s driven human exploration throughout our history, and those explorers are always quickly followed by prospectors – people looking for money. Even some single asteroids close to Earth are valued at having trillions of dollars worth of material. Imagine if we can work in space. If we can work up there, we can then mine the raw materials off asteroids like that and have those raw materials come in one end and a space-driven economy coming out the other. If even one of those high-net-worth individuals that Branson or Musk brings to space wants to help fund something like that, the ROI is potentially immeasurable.
In your opinion, what will a true “commercial space economy” look like compared to our traditional economies on Earth?
I imagine it would look very similar. A lot of people think space is too exotic and wild to create a lasting economy in, but there are billions of dollars worth of funds – if not more – that our government has sitting on the sidelines that can be used to invest in this. Space is real, space is now, and everything we need down here, we’re also going to need up there.
Tim, thank you so much again for taking the time to talk with us today about space. It was an absolute blast!
Thanks again for having me!
Tim Chrisman is a former U.S. Army Special Operations officer, author of “Humanity In Space, A Pre-History of Humanity’s Second Century in Space”, founder and director of Foundation For The Future, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization focused on bridging the gap between civil space and federal policy. For more information, please visit www.climb2space.com.