Last month, millions tuned in around the globe to watch billionaire innovators reach space in the adventure of the century.
Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceflight Unity took off on 11 July as he tested his commercial space travel plans. The CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, followed nine days later when he reached the edge of space onboard the New Shepard, the rocket ship produced by his space company Blue Origin.
SpaceX, the brainchild of Elon Musk, the co-founder of electric car maker Tesla, in 2018 launched Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful operational rocket for its first commercial flight. It launched a Tesla dummy driver named Starman onboard. Flights aboard reusable Falcon Heavy cost customers between $90 million (£64.5 million) and $150 million. Musk’s ambitions? Civilian trips to the Moon in 2023 and a future colony on Mars.
How have these entrepreneurs disrupted the aerospace industry, which had been stagnating for years, to make space tourism a near-reality?
The final frontier
Space tourism is decades old. In 2001, wealthy American entrepreneur Dennis Tito paid $20 million for a seat on Soyuz, a Russian spacecraft. He became the first tourist to visit the International Space Station. Only seven others have followed suit. High costs mean nation-states monopolised space travel.
After his successful flight, Virgin Galactic said it wants to make space tourism commercially viable and operate several flights annually. It has over 600 paying customers for its $250,000 seats including celebrities Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber.
Far from Dito’s rocket flight, private space companies offer cheaper possibilities in the form of suborbital launches, which allows crafts to reach the edge of space before coming back down.
While space tourism should provide a revenue stream for SpaceX’s Moon plans, funding for those ambitious ventures comes in majority from SpaceX’s orbital launches. With its $1 million satellite launch price, SpaceX offers an 80% cost reduction in dollars per kilo compared to competitors.
According to car company Porsche, which has recently invested in rocket startup Isar Aerospace, the global space launch services market is expected to rise to over €30 billion ($35.4 billion) by 2027. Orbital launches of small and medium-sized satellites will account for a third of the increase.
How legacy businesses compete
Legacy space businesses remain major players in the space economy, but heavyweights Boeing and Lockheed Martin are under pressure. They have vowed to build on their heritage in spatial exploration to keep up with the disruptors. Boeing have invested in Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines, who are building the next generation of hypersonic flight and orbital spacecraft.
The global space industry is worth an estimated $250 billion according to Morgan Stanley. The industry is expected to surge to $1 trillion by 2040. Satellite broadband and data is a lucrative market and will represent 50 per cent of the projected growth of the global space economy.
Legacy businesses could attract several billion pounds worth of investments by launching and supplying satellite tech and large-scale and real-time data broadband, innovative customer-focused services and enter partnerships with the new breed of tech businesses who are driving new approaches.
Startup Loft Orbital, which leases space on satellites, uses Python Programming Language and Artificial Intelligence to speed up timescales on satellite testing, making the firm more competitive.
UK’s space economy drive
In this space race, the United Kingdom is ambitious. “We will launch space missions from the UK”, President of UK Space Andy Green said as the trade association for the UK’s space industry published an ambitious growth plan for the sector, which carries 15 per cent of activity across the economy.
It aims to double the worth of space industrial activities to £500 billion, and to nearly double its workforce by 2030, adding a further 30,000 skilled people to the 38,000 already employed in the sector. UK Space said it intends to encourage diversity and inclusion in the sector.
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