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THE GLOBAL SPACE ECONOMY: A SHORT OVERVIEW OF THE NEW SPACE RACE

Human beings have been observing celestial bodies for thousands of years. Scholars have solid evidences that Sumerians had partial star maps between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago, while the ancient Egyptians had astronomical skills 4,500 years ago. We know that ancient Greek philosophers such as Anaximander, Plato, Aristotle, and Ptolemy tried to decipher the mysteries of our solar system and contributed to understanding the universe approximately 2,500 years ago. Their ideas were so influential that the geocentric model they created, for example, remained the accepted cosmological model more than a thousand years in most parts of the world, despite being incorrect. It was replaced with the heliocentric model by Copernicus in 16th century. Since then, several distinguished scientists made new discoveries and put groundbreaking theories, which changed the perception of the universe dramatically. Meanwhile, as science progressed, technology and engineering accompanied this progression.  

After thousands of years of struggle for understanding our solar system and the universe, humanity decided to exceed the boundaries of our planet and explore space using 20th century technology and engineering. First attempts were made in the 1950s, with Russia launching the first artificial satellite into orbit in 1957. Russia’s success worried the US, prompting them to accelerate its space activities, which eventually led to the start of a “Space Race”. In 1969, after a long period of work, Apollo 11 touched down on the surface of the moon ? a success that not only proved the supremacy of the U.S. in space, but was also regarded as one of the most significant leaps for mankind. Rivalry in space between Russia and the U.S. during the Cold War led to huge budget allocations to national space agencies. In relation to this era, Macdonald, in his book The Long Space Age, states that “in the history of technology, there are few events that match the Space Age in terms of political and cultural significance. In economic terms, the era remains unequaled in the amount of resources that were allocated to those engaged in the exploration of space.”[1]But starting from the 1970s, the Space Race slowed down, and budgets allocated to NASA decreased significantly. The U.S. space market had started to shrink in those years as well. At first, NASA navigated the market by purchasing from private firms. Later, supporting the private space sector became a priority for NASA. It started cooperating with private companies in some space research projects using the Public Private Partnership (P3) method. Other space agencies, such as the European Space Agency (ESA), attempted to award private companies in some P3 projects as well. The importance of creating a private space sector was finally recognized, as it had high potential for generating new revenues and a capacity to trigger other sectors. This step has encouraged entrepreneurs, and increased private investments in the space sector. Today, along with the increasing number of firms and diversified production, the global space economy has reached a significant size and become one of the most powerful factors that contributed to the global economy. 

To better understand the size of the global space economy, we should glance at the 2017 Morgan Stanley Report on the global space economy. The report shows[2]that the economy had a size of 350 billion dollars in 2017. The largest share in global space economy belonged to ground equipment with 113 billion dollars, followed by consumer TV, with 98 billion dollars. The share of governments was 84 billion dollars. The same report predicts that the global space economy will reach 1.1 trillion dollars by 2040, while the share of governments in the global space economy will decrease from 25 percent to 17 percent.

How Will the Global Space Economy Evolve?

However, contrary to the predictions of the Morgan Stanley Report, there are some doubts about the future of the global space economy. For example, O’Sullivan, in an interview published in Harvard Business Review, says[3]that space economy is flourishing, but to be able to talk about a 1.1 trillion dollar economy, huge resources such as mining asteroid and minerals must come into play, not to mention interplanetary existence as well. As a result, she refers to two different space economies. On the one hand, she explains that earth-focused space activities must be carried out like telecommunication and surveillance. On the other, she mentions that new industries, such as deep space exploration and asteroid mining, must emerge. Earth-focused space activities are already flourishing day-to-day. According to Morgan Stanley’s report, consumer TV, one of the biggest earth-focused space activities, will dominate the global space economy in 2040. Then, let us focus on new fields such as interplanetary existence, asteroid mining, and private space tourism to understand how the global space economy will evolve.

Does asteroid mining, for instance, have the capacity to significantly contribute to the global space economy? Ten years ago, mining in asteroids seemed unrealistic, but today, there are companies operating in this field. In fact, mining asteroids is expected to become common practice in a few decades. The well-known player in the asteroid mining industry is Planetary Resources, a Washington-based company that aims to mine water and precious metals from asteroids. When precious metals are mentioned, people immediately think of gold. But physicist Stephen Hawking, in his last broadcast interview before his death, said that “gold is rare everywhere, not just on Earth,”[4]and that there are very few ways for gold to be formed, such as through the collision of neutron stars. But scientists have discovered an exception: Asteroid Psyche 16. 

Psyche 16 was discovered by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis on 17 March 1852, and was believed to consist of metals —mostly gold—unlike most other asteroids previously observed. Now, let us imagine that a mining company touches down on this metal-rich asteroid, digs it, and manages to bring precious metals back to Earth. What would happen? In his article for Bloomberg, Noah Smith of Stony Brook University points out that Psyche 16 is worth 700 quintillion dollars, an amount enough to give each person on the planet 93 billion dollars.[5]But there is a reality: price is a function of relative scarcity. When supply goes up prices go down, that is, a large increase in supply will lead to a very large decrease in price. But the epilogue of his analysis is more important: “wealth mostly doesn’t come from big hunks of metal. It comes from the ability to create things that satisfy human desires.” In terms of precious metals, this example shows us that the contribution of asteroid mining to the global space economy is somewhat controversial.

Another target of asteroid mining companies is water, which is required to sustain human life in space. Water will not only be used for breathable air and food production, but also for the water-powered propellant, a technology that will facilitate interplanetary existence and deep space explorations. Therefore, asteroid mining companies that aim to mine water are also trying to develop this technology. NASA is focusing on water-powered propellants as well, as it is testing a water-powered spacecraft in orbit.[6]

However, with new technologies emerging every day, spaceships may not depend on only water in the future. NASA, for example, is trying to achieve nuclear thermal propulsion which would harness the heat thrown off by fission reactions to accelerate propellants such as hydrogen to tremendous speeds.[7]So the emergence of new technologies in propellant systems could decrease the revenue expectations of asteroid mining companies. In order to be able to breathe, humans need oxygen; and to be able to produce oxygen, they need water. For this reason, water and oxygen are expected to be crucial products for asteroid mining companies. In this context, some scholars have already started thinking of the value of air in extraterrestrial colonies. For example, Stevens says that “in extraterrestrial colonies oxygen turns from a freely available resource (as on Earth) to one of high value, more akin to mineral or hydrocarbon resources on Earth, but with one major difference—every single member of the populace is dependent on it.”[8]Although oxygen is considered to have potential to generate huge revenue for asteroid mining companies, such companies may not be the only option in providing water and oxygen. Some scientists think that Mars and the Moon—the primary targets for interplanetary existence—may have enough water to produce oxygen. In fact, water is thought to be even common on these near-Earth celestial bodies.

Interplanetary existence is thought to be another field to move the global space economy forward. In addition to national space agencies, private companies have crewed mission plans to visit other celestial bodies as well. The most prominent figure in this field is Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX. Musk has an ambitious plan to go to Mars before NASA in the 2020s. Moreover, he even plans to start a colony on the Red Planet. His company has already tested Starhopper successfully, the prototype of the Mars-colonizing Starship vehicle. The prototype soared 150 meters and then landed on a nearby landing pad. New tests to soar the vehicle approximately 20 km are planned to be done very soon. Although such an interplanetary project will undoubtedly help the global space economy move forward, we also need to keep in mind that interplanetary projects require large funds. So far, SpaceX seems to have managed to find enough funding to pursue its interplanetary projects. The lower costs of private companies in comparison to national space agencies may have helped. A report that I once read was saying “if NASA built SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, it would cost 10 times higher than SpaceX achieved.” It could be related to the fact that NASA is a government entity. Any failure in its missions could harm the prestige of the US government. Because of this, NASA must conduct its missions very carefully, which leads to longer working hours and corollary higher cost. Contrary to government entities, private companies tend to take higher risks, as they are only responsible for their own prestige, which leads to shorter working hours and lower budgets. 

Today, private space companies are not public ones. Fails in their missions could only harm their bottom line. If a space company went public, what would happen in a failed launch, for example? Would their stocks be affected? Virgin Galactic announced[9]that the company would go public, merging with a public investment firm. This seems like a courage decision following the company’s space plane’s, Spaceship Two, crash after an explosion during a test flight in 2014. I think such a failed mission could harm companies’ stocks at first especially in space tourism, for it may leave casualties behind. As for SpaceX, another big player, the company is not considering going public. SpaceX President, Gywnne Shotwell, once said that “the company can’t go public until [they’re] flying regularly to Mars.”[10]It seems that initial public offering will not become a common strategy for funding in the near future. In any case, financing big projects will be one of the major challenges for space companies.

Furthermore, national space agencies also aim to visit other celestial bodies, which is expected to significantly contribute to the global space economy. For example, NASA plans to ask for an additional six billion dollars to the agency’s budget in the next five years for its crewed moon mission, meaning that the crewed moon mission will cost at least 30 billion dollars. We know that other countries like China are also preparing for the crewed moon missions. On the other hand, we are going to witness unmanned moon missions carried out by space agencies and private companies in the following years. Unmanned moon missions were costlier in earlier years. But today, Israel, for example, is estimated to have spent only 100 million dollars for the Beresheet Spacecraft, which crashed during the landing on the moon due to a technical problem. Similarly, India spent 145 million dollars for its moon mission, which also failed. These figures show that unmanned moon missions will have slight contribution to the global space economy.

Beside this, NASA plans to go to Mars in the 2030s. But it is doubtful whether NASA will carry out a crewed Mars mission in the first half of the 2030s. Because, apart from the technical issues, there are financial challenges as well. The cost estimation of a crewed Mars mission differs according to various sources. Some say it would cost 1.5 trillion dollars.[11]However, I believe that the most realistic forecast belongs to the Science and Technology Policy Institute with which NASA contracted to prepare a report for a technical and financial assessment of the crewed Mars mission. The institute estimated[12]that the crewed Mars mission would cost NASA 217.4 billion dollars. When NASA’s 2019 budget of 22 billion dollars is considered, it becomes clear that a huge additional budget would need to be allocated to NASA for the crewed Mars mission each year On the other hand, China, for example, has allocated 10.8 billion dollars to space activities in 2019. Similarly, ESA and Russia have allocated 6.3 billion and 3.3 billion dollars respectively to space research. Other countries such as Japan, India, and Germany have appropriated roughly two billion dollars for space. These figures show that countries that plan to carry out major space activities like Mars missions need to increase their budgets. If interplanetary missions cannot be executed, reaching a trillion-dollar space economy will be harder than thought.

On another note, it is worthy to mention that military activities in space have been intensifying. For example, the U.S. officially activated the Space Command that will defend its military satellites and other space assets.[13]In addition, it has been reported[14]that the Pentagon wants to have a space station, which will initially  be used as an  experiment, but later to support life and accommodate military crews. On the other hand, China and India are developing anti-satellite weapons. These developments show that military space projects will increase the amount of money spent on space activities.

Private space tourism is another factor that will contribute to the global space economy. Some companies like Virgin Galactic are working feverishly to carry adventurers to space. Virgin Galactic has already unveiled its spaceport, a hangar that will eventually provide a space for the company’s commercial flight operations. The company has sold 600 passenger tickets from 250,000 dollars each; the passengers who want to watch the Earth from orbit have already put down a deposit.[15]However, the customers of space tourism cannot be limited to adventurers. As a result of their experiment, a team of doctors from University of Technology Sydney found that most cancer cells subjected to micro-gravity in the lab died off without any other treatment. The team plans to do the same experiment at the International Space Station (ISS) next year.[16]If accepted as a treatment method, we might see space tourism companies collaborating with the health sector in carrying cancer patients to space in the future. Naturally, such a treatment would require longer spent time in space. But some companies are struggling to achieve longer stay time in space anyway. Orion Span, for instance, is working to build a private space station named Aurora Space Station. Apart from being a manufacturing and research facility, the space station is expected to serve as a space hotel that will host individual citizens for 12 days.[17]

Although space activities are diversifying and flourishing day by day, there are still some challenges that face the industry. For example, demand is one of the major challenges, as it is very limited. Gurtuna points out[18]that even though prices in launch vehicle market have dropped, the demand has remained stable. SpaceX, the biggest player in the launch industry, for instance, has a payroll bill of 600 million dollars a year. Adding to this, the company has the cost of materials, rents, insurance, legal fees, taxes, and others. It is estimated that the total gross annual bill for running SpaceX exceeds 1.2 billion dollars. But the company performed only 21 launches in 2018, which is essentially not enough for the company to become profitable.[19]

But ultimately, despite all challenges in the space industry, the ambitious owners of large companies will determine whether we will have a trillion-dollar space economy in the 2040s. We have been watching Elon Musk every day in media outlets announcing his new projects. Some say that most of the projects he introduces are a dream.But we are witnessing Musk reaching his goals step by step. Vance, in his book titled Elon Musk, says that “by the time this book reaches your hands, it’s quite possible that Musk and SpaceX will have managed to land a rocket on a barge at sea or back on a launchpad in Florida.”[20]Certainly true. When I started reading the book, he had already managed to land the rocket on a barge at the sea. The founders of multi-billion dollar companies are accepted as the initiators and one of the most important actors of the era called “New Space”. Davenport says that “Musk and Bezos were the leaders of the resurrection of the American space program, a pair of billionaires with vastly different styles and temperaments.”[21]Moreover, Kaku describes this era in which “daring astronauts are being replaced by dashing billionaire entrepreneurs.”[22]

To sum up, we will most likely witness successful space missions carried out by governments and private companies in the future. Some other countries that have not engaged in space activities yet will surely partake in the global space industry in the following years. But in any case, as emphasized before, large-scale space missions will determine whether a trillion-dollar global space economy will be achieved. Additionally, I care about P3 projects for having a flourished global space economy. I think that P3 projects will be one of the most important things that will affect the development of the space industry. If governments and national space agencies keep collaborating with private companies in space programs, we will most likely see more space companies, diversified production, and a larger global space economy. 

Where Does Turkey Stand in the New Space Race?

While the global space economy is flourishing day-to-day and new players are diving into the space sector, Turkey is still quite far away from these developments. It has very few space companies, which generally operate in satellite services. The largest one has a partner that is of public entity. Moreover, Turkey has six satellites in orbit. As Türksat 3A, 4A, and 4B satellites provides communications services, Göktürk-1, Göktürk-2, and RASAT satellites have observing duties. Turkish engineers have developed observation satellites like RASAT, but Turkey must do everything from R&D to production. After all, as one of the 20 largest economies in the world, Turkey must be more involved in the global space economy, and make an effort to get a larger share of it. 

Developed countries have created their own private space sectors through national space agencies as mentioned before. At first, the national space agencies have purchased materials and components from the private companies, later they have cooperated with them in space programs through P3 projects. The P3 method has encouraged existing companies and start-ups to enter the market and contribute to the growth of the space sector. Therefore, Turkey should pursue a similar policy to create its own private space sector.

Thus, having a national space agency is imperative in creating a space sector. Until 2018, Turkey did not have its own national space agency. A Presidential Decree was published in Turkey’s official gazette on 13 December 2018 announcing The Turkish Space Agency had been officially established.[23]But since then, only executive positions such as  the Chairman, and members of the Board of Directors have been appointed. 

Furthermore, we see only one article, Article 4, that refers to a private space industry in the Decree. Article 4 states that developing a competitive space industry in the country is lined within the duties of the Agency. But such a statement needs to be extended and explained broadly in the National Space Program, which will be prepared later on. 

Space activities should not only be limited to the Agency; private companies should also participate. The Turkish Space Agency should collaborate with private companies in space programs through P3 projects in order to establish a private space sector. Moreover, cooperating with private companies through P3 projects will encourage existing companies and start-ups to invest in the space sector. Meanwhile, the Agency will naturally carry out its own space projects for national security, public health, and scientific knowledge, which are called “public goods” in the literature of economics. But the only thing that will make a country a part of the global space economy is to have private space companies. Therefore, encouraging private companies to partake in space activities is one of the Agency’s most important duties.

 

 

[1]Alexander C. MacDonald, The Long Space Age: The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), p. 149.

[2]“Space: Investment Implications of the Final Frontier,” Morgan Stanley,(2017), pp. 13-14.

[3]“Understanding the Space Economy,” Harvard Business Review,28 May 2019, hbr.org/ideacast/2019/05/understanding-the-space-economy

[4]Pallab Ghosh, “Stephen Hawking’s final interview: A beautiful Universe,” BBC,26 March 2018, bbc.com/news/science-environment-43499024

[5]Noah Smith, “That Giant Asteroid of Gold Won’t Make Us Richer,” Bloomberg,8 July 2019, bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-07-08/asteroid-16-psyche-and-all-that-gold-won-t-make-earth-richer

[6]Evan Gough, “NASA Is Testing Water-Powered Spacecraft in Orbit,” Curiosity, 30 August 2019, curiosity.com/topics/nasa-is-testing-water-powered-spacecraft-in-orbit-curiosity/?utm_source=tumblr&utm_medium=social

[7]Dan Robitzski, “Head of NASA: Nuclear propulsion could be ‘game-changer,’ Futurism,23 August 2019, futurism.com/the-byte/nasa-nuclear-propulsion-game-changer

[8]Adam H. Stevens, “The Price of Air,” in Charles S. Cockell (ed.), Human Governance Beyond Earth Implications for Freedom(Switzerland: Springer, 2015), p.59.

[9]Samantha Masunaga, “In a first, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space-tourism firm will go public,” Los Angeles Times, 9 July 2019, latimes.com/business/la-fi-richard-branson-virgin-galactic-public-trading-20190709-story.html

[10]Michael Sheetz, “Elon Musk’s sudden plan to take Tesla private complicates any possible SpaceX IPO,” CNBC, 9 August 2018, cnbc.com/2018/08/09/musk-reportedly-no-longer-considering-spacex-ipo-plans.html

[11]O. Glenn Smith and Paul D. Spudis, “Mars for Only $1.5 Trillion,” Space News,8 March 2015, spacenews.com/op-ed-mars-for-only-1-5-trillion/

[12]“Evaluation of a Human Mission to Mars by 2033,” Science and TechnologyInstitute(2019).

[13]Katie Rogers and Helene Cooper, “Trump Authorizes a Space Command. Next, He Wants a Space Force,” The New York Times,29 August 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/08/29/us/politics/trump-space-command-force.html

[14]Dan Robitzski, “The Pentagon wants its own orbital space station, like a death star, but not, okay?” Futurism,3 July 2019, futurism.com/the-byte/pentagon-orbital-space-station

[15]Mike Wall, “Virgin Galactic to Inaugurated Its ‘Gateway to Space’ by Flying ‘Eve’ Over Spaceport America,” Space,16 August 2019, space.com/virgin-galactic-first-flight-opearational-spaceport.html

[16]Dan Robitzski, “Doctors to test fringe theory that zero gravity kills cancer cells,” Futurism, 29 August 2019, futurism.com/neoscope/doctors-theory-gravity-cancer

[17]David Perry, “Would you want to stay in a space hotel?” BBC,7 March 2019, bbc.com/future/story/20190306-would-you-want-to-stay-in-a-space-hotel

[18]Ozgur Gurtuna, Fundamentals of Space Business and Economics(New York: Springer, 2013), p.11.

[19]Robert Zubrin, The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility(New York: Prometheus Books, 2019), p. 35.

[20]Ashlee Vance, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future(New York: Ecco, 2017), p. 187.

[21]Christian Davenport, The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the

Cosmos(New York: PublicAffairs, 2018), p. 12.

[22]Michio Kaku, The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth(New York: Doubleday, 2018) p. 46.

[23]Presidential Decree about Turkish Space Agency, Official Gazette,12 December 2018.

CONTRIBUTOR
Türksoy Emen
Türksoy Emen

Türksoy Emen is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Economics, Administrative and Social Sciences of Nişantaşı University, Turkey.

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