Today’s cornerstone of human spaceflight is the International Space Station (ISS), which has orbited the Earth since 2000. For the last 16-plus years, ISS has orbited overhead continuously, staffed by crews of five to seven people. The ISS adventure began in 1995, when five international space agencies joined forces to build the Station, which is humanity’s largest peacetime project ever. The ISS and its crew orbit the planet at an altitude of about 250 miles, in a zone known as Low Earth Orbit, or “LEO.”
ISS is home to a U.S. National Lab and is also home to the research facilities of 14 additional countries. The economic and practical impacts of the Station are numerous and widespread. It has driven a multi-billion-dollar supply chain, and the work that happens in weightlessness on ISS is beginning to transition from research to manufacturing – as more high-value products such as fiber optics and super alloys that can only be made in space are being identified.
In-space manufacturing in the continuous microgravity environment of space is the basis for enormous economic growth. It is the only environment where certain high-value products can be manufactured. Some of those products with massive markets include manufacturing high value components such as turbine blades with super alloys that can be twice as strong and half the weight of the same alloy formed on the ground, (materials industry), 3D additive manufacturing of organs for transplant that are impossible to produce on the Earth (biotech and pharma industries), high-throughput fiber optics that can increase transmission speeds 100X and even transmit infrared waves (communications and military applications) and ultra light weight satellites that dramatically reduces development and operational costs while increasing service life (big data, IoT and Earth observation). All these activities will be further accelerated by the increasing utilization of artificial intelligence and robotics.
ISS has yielded game-changing technologies used on Earth, ranging from new medications to memory foam. It has been a base for expanding our understanding of people and the Earth in many areas, from human health to climate change to disaster planning and relief. It has even spurred increased science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education across the globe.
There are big changes ahead for ISS operations. The station will be retired and deorbited sometime between 2024 and 2028 and its five governmental partners are preparing to turn the space station business over to the private sector.
Rendering of Axiom Station connected to the International Space Station
THE HISTORY AND IMPACT OF HUMAN SPACEFLIGHT
For centuries, explorers have journeyed far from home in search of natural resources, economic opportunities, adventure, and new knowledge. Their travels have often greatly changed them, their countries, and societies and lands around the world. Human spaceflight has ushered in the age of space exploration, a modern age of exploration which promises to both mirror and surpass the earlier Age of Exploration in terms of social impact and enormous economic opportunity. To truly understand the tremendous influence and astounding possibilities of human spaceflight and exploration, it is helpful to take a brief look back at how that earlier age of exploration shaped human societies and history.
In The Age of Exploration, ocean-sailing European explorers carried large amounts of gold and silver ore to Spain and other European countries from mines in the Americas. The resulting surplus of precious metals from the New World devalued coin in Europe and helped lead to the Price Revolution. The Price Revolution caused land owners to fall out as the dominant class, giving traders new power and status. This was an economic sea change, and a boon to those who foresaw it or were poised to benefit from it.
The explorers also carried potatoes, corn and other new and nutrient-rich foods to Europe from the New World. The introduction of those foreign food crops led to increased dietary caloric and protein intakes that made many Europeans heavier, taller, stronger and more resistant to disease – bringing widespread benefits. As European explorers sailed the seas to acquire and import the resources of the New World, European scientists such as Darwin tagged along, making invaluable discoveries and contributions of their own.
This exploration and trade kindled the Renaissance and it is therefore, for good reason, also called The Age of Exploration and The Age of Discovery. The Age of Exploration led to The Age of Imperialism, which had its own enormous impacts on the societies and economies of the world.
Leaping forward 250 years, from the ocean-sailing ships of The Age of Exploration to our modern ships of space exploration, we can see why many governments, companies and wealthy individuals are investing in space exploration. Human space exploration gives nations and commercial entities the opportunity to conduct scientific research that is designed to facilitate continuing advancements and capabilities in space travel, business and exploration, and the ISS is the current home platform for ongoing human space exploration.
History repeats itself, and with modern technological advances, the effects and rewards of exploration continue to be accelerated, multiplied and amplified. The ISS was envisioned as an orbiting scientific laboratory, a platform for studying science, technology, and human adaptation to life in space. ISS astronauts conduct scientific research, and we study those astronauts to improve their health and our own health here on Earth. Of course, astronauts are more than just scientific experimenters and human laboratory subjects; they also learn on the job how to fix real-time problems in space – and their in-space experiences and discoveries enable exploration further afield.
Another goal of sending people to space is the discovery and exploitation of space resources. We now know that near-Earth asteroids contain massive deposits of precious and industrial metals, and astronauts are helping us learn how to collect and extract those metals.
Sending people into space results in both planned and unexpected technological advancements, in disciplines ranging from medicine to environmental control to agriculture and remote-operations control systems. It results in new and improved ways to do more on Earth and to travel farther into the cosmos; it expands our knowledge and provides ever more ways to create wealth and innovation.
Hundreds of experiments and technological developments have been realized on the ISS since 2000. As a result of ISS activities and research, back here on Earth: Surgeons can perform surgeries inside MRI machines; ultrasound equipment is deployed in rural areas; we have effective new treatments for some obstinate diseases; we can better predict weather, track environmental change and understand natural disasters; millions of students have participated in space research projects; we routinely deploy tiny satellites, giving access to thousands of innovators and creating new markets in big data, analytics and communications; and we have a far better understanding of human adaptation to the space environment.
The list of ISS benefits goes on and on, but by now you already have a strong sense of the ongoing societal benefits and economic values that derive from the use and commercialization of new technologies and discoveries already provided by the ISS and the spaceflight industry.
You can probably see why the space industry is expected be an astonishing and ever-expanding arena for discovery, innovation, and wealth creation. It has been said that the first trillionaire will be a space exploration entrepreneur!
THE TRILLION-DOLLAR HUMAN SPACEFLIGHT INFRASTRUCTURE PYRAMID
Today there is a trillion-dollar pyramid of human spaceflight infrastructure. The ISS now sits in LEO at the tip of that pyramid, above a supporting foundation comprised of rockets, communication networks, aerospace manufacturing, scientific research support and operations support.
In March of this year, 2017, Bill Gerstenmaier, who is NASA’s head of Human Space Exploration, presented this timeline for exploring Space:
The most important element of this NASA timeline to investors is the concept of the Infrastructure Pyramid. Today, the tip of the human spaceflight pyramid is in low Earth orbit (LEO), about 250 miles above the Earth. At the tip of the pyramid is the International Space Station, and the base it relies on includes space agencies, ground networks and the global space station supply chain, including hundreds of secondary and tertiary suppliers and contractors.
As the tip of the pyramid extends further toward the moon, then the asteroids, and then Mars, the base of the pyramid will grow. The terrestrial infrastructure and the infrastructure in LEO will also grow. The demand for space stations and their upstream suppliers will also grow. This growing industry is the trigger of what is now becoming known as the Gross Space Product (GSP), the cumulative metric of the space economy.
The ISS holds a special role in the total space economy. As the spaceflight pyramid’s apex expands further into space and its base gets broader, the ISS and LEO will go from being at the tip of the pyramid to being part of the vital base layer of infrastructure that will support further human exploration and the expanded in-space manufacturing of products for use in space and on Earth. As LEO and the ISS drop lower and lower in the infrastructure pyramid, the demand for the space station platform’s services will grow.
Boeing and Lockheed’s joint venture, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), released the corresponding Roadmap to the Cislunar-1000 Economy. It is a roadmap for an infrastructure supporting one thousand people simultaneously living and working in the space between Earth and the moon, to be in place within the next 30 years. It tracks on the same growth structure as NASA’s time line and demonstrates the growing demand for LEO infrastructure to not just one, but many space stations. ULA estimates that the GSP will be at $2.7 trillion by 2030.