Lessons Learnt for NewSpace Companies by Dr. Stella Tkatchova
The planned launches of mega satellite constellations (OneWeb, Starlink, Boeing, Samsung, etc.), 3D printing of satellite parts (e.g. solar panels, etc.) and concepts for the launch of commercial space stations (XBASE, Ixion, etc.) are some of the trends taking place in recent years. Reusable rockets are launching experiments on board commercial cargo vehicles to the International Space Station, astronauts are attaching and testing inflatable space station modules (e.g. BEAM) and testing 3D printers in microgravity.
Parallel with that Cubesat low-cost satellites built by companies (e.g. Planet, ISIS, SSL, etc.) are offering EO for new space applications and complementing existing satellite capabilities. Driven by the demand of governments, research institutes and earth observation data private companies are developing applications for disaster management, environment protection and safety, precision agriculture and others.
Commercial launch services, asteroid and lunar mining in-situ resource exploitation (e.g Space, Off World, Astrobotic, Moon Express, Space Applications Services, VITO, etc.), in-orbit satellite servicing and commercialisation of space stations are some of the markets worth exploring by NewSpace companies.
Since 2000, commercial space start-up companies have attracted over 13.3 billion USD of investment in over eighty capital-based space companies. In 2017, a record of 3.9 billion USD non-governmental investment was allocated to 300 commercial space companies, as reported by the Space Angels study (Angels, 2018).
The development of space technology, built for scientific purposes, is challenging and difficult. However, it also holds the promise of new market opportunities and draws lessons for the further commercialisation of space stations (e.g. ISS, MIR) that will be beneficial to NewSpace companies.
Competitive driving forces, changing business models, disruptive innovation and the evolvement of qualifying and flying payloads in shorter lead times create new challenges for space companies. Venture capitalists will be looking at a quick return of their investments, high profits and short times for space-based products and services to reach the markets. NewSpace companies will need to discover, identify and target commercial space markets and attract new customers beside the traditional space agencies, as well as develop their Lunar rovers, landers and services.
There are a number of lessons learnt from MIR and ISS commercialization which are relevant to NewSpace companies.
Market lessons There are over-optimistic market assumptions on the expected market demand for ISS products and services. Companies involved in lunar and asteroid in-situ resource utilization may assume or be mislead that there is a huge, easy to create market with very few customers and “time-to-market”.
Requirements lessons - Changing end-user requirements in the design and development of certain technologies (e.g. rovers, landers, etc.) or products , may result in schedule and cost slippage and delays in time to market the product.
Customer lessons - Unknown customers, costs and markets might push NewSpace companies to increase their reliance on a single governmental customer with a strong purchasing power that has the market ability to impose contractual conditions. NewSpace companies need to be ready to develop flexible marketing strategies that will offer competitive market positioning of their products or services, and to diversify their customer base.
Benefits Lessons - Difficulties in defining the benefits of NewSpace space-based products and services are similar to those experienced by space agencies working on ISS commercialization, as non-space companies had limited knowledge and interest in the benefits of microgravity environment.
Technical lessons - NewSpace companies will encounter some additional technical challenges connected with lunar and asteroid mining, such as unknown deposits of ice on the Moon and asteroids. There are also difficulties related to the interoperability between different commercial rovers, issues related to the high reliability of the life support systems, space radiation protection and others.
Funding lessons - The high launch costs and operations for lunar exploration and commercial R&D experiments may create difficulties in attracting venture capital, more specifically in the area of long-term funding for infrastructure projects and generation of profitable return on investment. Private investors may also shy away from advanced concepts such 3D-printing of lunar material or propellant production from lunar water as they may consider them to be overly expensive and too far removed in the future.
Neverthless - many NewSpace companies will develop viable and sustainable business models for ISRU, lunar and asteroid mining, as well as attract commercial customers and evolve technology roadmaps which will offer them the opportunity to innovate and pursue new market opportunities.
As the demand for commercial launch services, reusable lunar landers and rovers, telerobotics and teleoperations, ISRU capabilities and 3D printing of satellite parts may grow, NewSpace companies will need to anticipate the potential technological, market, funding and political risks and leverage on the lessons leant from ISS commercialization. In this manner, they will be able to pursue technical roadmaps that will be commercially and cost-effectively compelling in the long-term future.