Throughout history, the exploration of new frontiers has yielded economic bounties in the forms of resources, living space, military advantage, and scientific research.
Today, our new frontiers lie in space, which humanity must eventually colonize for minerals, energy and new homelands. As Carl Sagan observed, “All civilizations become either space-faring, or extinct.”
Space exploration is a force of nature unto itself that no other force in society can rival. Neil deGrasse Tyson
The commercialization of space began in 1965 with the deployment of the first private communications satellite IntelSat1, only 4 years after US FCC Commissioner Craven saw “no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States.”
Today, over 1,000 satellites operate in space, thanks to government-funded programs.
While the Apollo Lunar Mission showed government research at its very best, aerospace technology since then has in many ways stagnated. Computing systems in orbit today resemble 60’s era mainframes, and for the four decades following 1963, there was no reduction in launch costs.
Space-based imagery, communications, and travel are still largely inaccessible to the public. According to prominent aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, “Space travel is the only technology that is more dangerous and more expensive now than it was in its first year.”
But all that’s changing today, with the entry of aerospace startups.
Venture-backed companies like SpaceX, Skybox, Planet Labs,and O3B disrupt the aerospace industry with faster, cheaper, better products. Unencumbered by government bureaucracy, this new breed of enterprise can move quickly, attract the best talent with equity ownership, and take calculated design risks that government contractors cannot afford to.
This new renaissance in SpaceTech coincides with multiple macro trends. The internet economy has filled the coffers of venture firms (like BVP) and even entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk, who now have the resources to tackle capital-intensive programs, meanwhile the financial crisis of 2008 compelled many governments to divest internal space programs in favor of private sector suppliers.
After years of falling behind the curve on Moore’s Law, there is a huge dividend to harvest in computing performance, cost and SpaceTech ventures take advantage of modern tools like open source software, off the shelf electronics, rapid iteration cycles with continuous integration, and 3D-printing. They prioritize scalability and time to launch, thinking in terms of networks rather than hosts.
The early bounties will be in Low Earth Orbit, where ubiquitous constellations of cubesats with sensors and mesh networks enhance our communications, agriculture, media, security, weather forecasting, global logistics, and geological sciences. Longer-term bounties will derive from space-based mining, and manned travel to moons and planets.
“During the next 50 years, in countless cycles, in countless entrepreneurial companies, this ‘let’s just go and do it’ mentality will help us finally get off the planet and irreversibly open the space frontier,” said Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation. “The capital and tools are finally being placed into the hands of those willing to risk, willing to fail, willing to follow the dreams.”
Editor’s Note: David Cowan is a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, he co-founded VeriSign, Good Technology and Defense.net, and co-authored several cybersecurity patents. He has also led the firm’s investments in Skybox Imaging.