July 21, 2021

Article at nydailynews.com

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The billionaire space race is good for you: Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Elon Musk and the rest of humanity

Jeff Bezos speaks about his flight on Blue Origin’s New Shepard into space during a press conference on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas.
Jeff Bezos speaks about his flight on Blue Origin’s New Shepard into space during a press conference on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas.

The space race of the 1960s began during an era not unlike today’s. A political and cultural revolution was afoot in the United States and abroad during a period of economic expansion globally. Poverty, however, afflicted close to half the world’s population, and here in America, an American president launched a war on poverty, promising help for the “one-fifth of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs.”

National ambition and factional opposition could not have coexisted in starker contrast when it came to the space race. Civil rights activists protested the moon landing.

Today, the state of the world has made leaps forward, yet antipathy towards space endeavors remains steadfast. Many of the same arguments –– a misapplication of resources and priorities for celestially absurd goals while economic suffering still exists on Earth –– are repeated. Global growth this year is estimated to be 5.8% –– similar to the historically high growth period during the 1960s — but today, unlike 70 years ago, less than 10% of the world lives in extreme poverty. Even though poverty has not been eradicated in developing countries or in the U.S., access to health care, vaccines, education, clean water, nourishment, technology and the internet have improved conditions for billions. All this is, undoubtedly, a direct result of economic progress and technological enterprise.

The fact that technological advancement contributes to growth is often overlooked when pursuits such as space exploration are deemed to be vanity projects of a billionaire class. What space-based commercial activity will mean for the global economy and resulting technological spillover is largely untold. As the MIT economist Jonathan Gruber notes in his book “Jump-Starting America,” space exploration has helped generate countless new technologies including artificial limbs, solar cells, insulin pumps, water filtration, CAT scans, beacons, memory foam and dozens of other recognizably beneficial products. All told, over 2,000 space-based products from 1958 to today have been documented by NASA and have reached downstream markets.

We can similarly expect there will be an endless and unimaginable number of new patents and applications in entirely separate industries as a result of the private-sector space economy. In the constrained environment of space, optimizing a technology for specific uses ends up creating lasting technology for generations. NASA’s technology transfer ensured a pipeline for productization, and regulatory frameworks for patent pools and licensing may be the main challenge the new space industry faces. Just as every year new technology used in space by NASA makes its way into useful products –– from improved industrial robotic grippers to 3D printing for electronics on demand –– advancements in the private sector will be groundbreaking. Made in Space’s current contract with NASA involves 3D printing metal beams for use on spacecrafts. Other private sector technologies are being used to plan habitats and factories in space, even though space tourism is a small focus of the space industry which is projected to be $3 billion market by 2030.

If the space race of the 1960s was a sprint between two nations, the space race of the 2020s will be a marathon between many companies. Morgan Stanley estimates the current space industry at $350 billion and expects it to swell to $1 trillion over the next decade centering on satellites, satellite internet, deep space exploration, asteroid mining, space research and, most significantly, manufacturing. In-space manufacturing can take advantage of microgravity in lower earth orbit to print everything from insulin crystals to human organs. Suspended near-zero-gravity states allow for delicate substances and tissue to scaffold and replicate much more easily, where as they may collapse in gravity.

Companies such as Relativity Space have raised $650 million to provide 3D-printing manufacturing. Last year, nearly 1,300 satellite payloads entered Earth’s orbit and as ride-sharing rockets reduce costs and waste, companies such as Phantom Space will launch many more. The highways to space and the base layer of suborbital infrastructure are being built.

What critics of the space economy fail to see is that the core commercialization of space will focus on problems back on Earth. All the investment will mean one thing –– that intellectual property and innovation will find its way into the things we use every day or that could save lives in a hospital. Detractors may not see the direct benefits of space flight. After all, there aren’t labels on the products we use to tell us where the technology is derived from. But if we can tolerate a brief billionaire public relations sideshow, the long-term private investments will eventually translate into economic impact and justification, if not gratification.

It is hopeful to think that this decade’s space race will also inspire the next crop of engineers and scientists as much as it did for previous generations –– space is worth pursuing for commercialization, but also for its own sake as a domain for discovery. Writing in his fiction novel “Contact,” the late cosmologist Carl Sagan conveyed the loss of intimacy between people and space after the Space Age. “New generations grew to maturity wholly ignorant of the sky that had transfixed their ancestors and that had stimulated the modern age of science and technology,” he lamented.

That cosmic isolationism, as Sagan had presciently described, is now ending as the beginning of a commercial space economy pursues frontier growth in all directions. Everyone stands to benefit.