While people are currently excited over the emergence of mass-market electric vehicles, the promise of autonomous travel, package delivery drones and other new transportation technology, another revolution may be around the corner that could quickly eclipse these others over the next 20 years: space transportation.
Space is the ultimate transportation business. While seldom if ever thought of as part of the transportation system today, the commercial space industry is already a $300 billion dollar global business and growing fast.
Developments include pioneering commercial launch capabilities to replace those of government programs, a proliferation of small satellite manufacturing and support companies, in-space manufacturing, space robotics, and various commercial ventures focused on the Moon, asteroids and Mars. All told, the commercial space industry holds much promise and many new opportunities are likely to emerge in the next several years.
However, getting to space is hard. It requires tremendously higher speeds than any other familiar form of transport (a rocket travels about ten times faster than a bullet, and thirty times faster than a commercial plane), enormous amounts of fuel compared to the mass of the payload, and very high performance materials (especially for re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere). It is also very risky; currently, about one in 25 commercial rocket launches fail.
How will reduced transportation costs to space affect the future?
Space launch is starting to become cheaper and more routine, and companies are betting that in the near future, the cost of sending a kilogram into orbit may fall by up to 100 times, from roughly $10,000 today to $100, through a variety of approaches. Even a tenfold decrease would be very significant. (For comparison, most commercial shipping companies will ship to almost any location on Earth within 24 hours for less than $50 per kg.)
Lower costs will open up new possibilities for Earth observation, space manufacturing, space tourism, space-based energy production, and serve as a literal launching-off point for destinations beyond low-Earth orbit (“LEO”). Indeed, there will be many applications not yet contemplated because it never made sense to think about them when costs were prohibitively high.
Technological advancements in the space industry to create new modalities
Once the space industry begins to take off, industries and human society will need to radically redefine the notion of the transportation sector, because it will begin to include multiple new modalities for both people and cargo, including:
1. Commercial, commodity-priced launch service to LEO
2. Transfer capabilities to higher Earth orbits, the Moon and other destinations in the inner (and one day, outer) solar system
3. Robotic technology for a wide variety of missions and destinations, with increasing sophistication, autonomy and (sometimes) tele-operation capability
4. Servicing and refueling Earth-orbiting satellites and other spacecraft
5. Interception and safe destruction of space debris to avoid in-orbit collisions and potential runaway effects like the Kessler Syndrome
6. Return-to-surface (reentry) service from orbit for delivery of people, used cargo, and space-manufactured goods
7. Point-to-point transport on Earth via orbital or sub-orbital flight
8. Construction of commercial space stations and other large structures in orbit
9. Propellant production, storage and transport for long-distance spacecraft journeys
10. Off-Earth mineral mining and return of ore and/or refined materials to Earth
11. Wheeled surface transportation on other solar system bodies such as the Moon, as well as airborne transportation on bodies with an atmosphere (such as Mars)
12. Eventually, a variety of sizes and configurations of spacecraft for routine travel between Earth and other destinations
Role of earth-based mobility innovations in space transportation
While many of the above applications will rely on technology unfamiliar to the Earth-based transportation community (for example rockets), there are important touchstones with technologies now in use or emerging here on Earth, such as electric vehicles, autonomous technology and solar power. Each of these will play a large and growing role in space transportation, with synergistic benefits between Earth and space applications.
For instance, advances in vehicle automation will have direct benefits for autonomous spacecraft and rovers, which will need increasing amounts of situational awareness and independent decision-making capabilities; likewise, lessons learned from space missions could feed back to vehicle automation improvements on Earth.
What would a burgeoning commercial space industry mean to the transportation industry and life on Earth? A lot more than people realize. In the next several blog posts, discover more about the themes enumerated here that could have big impacts on the transportation sector and the very notion of what people think of as “transport.”
How do you envision space transport? Share your ideas in the comment section.
Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.