Joseph Stern, Express Trade Capital
In 1961, Ralph Cordiner, then chairman of General Electric, published a paper on the importance of private investment into space. Amid a cold war between the world’s super powers, Mr. Cordiner thought it prudent that the United States, as a proponent of capitalism, should beat the Russians in space not through government spending, but through private sector investment.
Since there was little economic incentive in space at the time, Mr. Cordiner’s vision did not play out. However, his words did not fall on deaf ears. With the rise of telecommunications came the first surge of investment into the fledgling space industry. Since getting to space was very expensive, the industry grew on the shoulders of telecommunications giants and the equally large corporations who supported them.
The idea that space is only accessible to governments and telecommunication elites changed drastically ten years ago with two developments: the private launcher and the cube satellite.
Space Exploration Technologies, now known as SpaceX, was a dream lead by PayPal founder Elon Musk. By 2008, SpaceX had run out of money and was on the brink of collapse. Then, without a feasible launch plan, NASA awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract to resupply the International Space Station. Upon fulfilling the contract, SpaceX proved that it can launch cargo into space at a fraction of the cost of other government-funded launchers. Since then, other privately-funded launch companies have entered the space market though SpaceX remains the lowest cost launch provider, sending cargo into orbit for as little as $2,500 per kilogram.
The CubeSat was designed in 1999 by Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs in an attempt to standardize satellite design. Within the CubeSat model, satellites are built to fit precisely into 10 cubic centimeter units: A 1U satellite would measure 10 x 10 x 10 cm, a 2U satellite would measure 10 x 10 x 20 cm, and so on.
The concept was relatively unutilized until 2013, when 88 CubeSats when up into orbit. Dropping launch costs, combined with ride sharing services which aggregate many satellites in on launch, drastically reduced the cost of launching satellites for people and institutions without much funding. In the short period of a few years, even public high school science clubs are now able to build and launch their satellites into space.
Today, CubeSats are fitted with receivers, cameras, mirrors, and other sensors, which collect data and relay information to other satellites or back to earth. In the past few years, a growing number of governments and business have awarded contracts to smaller and mid-sized entrepreneurs to build and launch satellites for a variety of purposes including tracking endangered species, forecasting weather, valuing agricultural land, and aiding in archeological digs. This marks a significant shift in the space industry landscape. The space space has grown from being the exclusive domain of mega corporations and large publicly funded government entities with immense resources to include smaller governments and businesses. The industry is wide open for participants and innovators of all sizes.
Lowered launch costs and standardized satellite production have made space accessible to everyone from a telecommunications billionaire, to an entrepreneur who grew up dreaming of exploration, to a high school student who may very well realize their extraterrestrial aspirations while still in school. Within a few short decades, Ralph Cordiner’s dream of a privately funded space industry is finally becoming a reality.
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