By Tom Vice, CEO of Sierra Space
Humans who bore witness to the advent of steam power, the mass production of steel, electricity and the internet could not have predicted, in real time, what a profound impact those innovations would have on our civilization. Only hindsight and history reveal the spark, the key players, the milestone moments and the breakthrough products that define ages of innovation from the industrial revolution to the information age and beyond.
However, at this moment, there is a palpable sense that we have already entered the next and most profound period of innovation in human history. American preeminence in science and technology got us here, and the United States needs to lead the world into the burgeoning era of space commercialization or fall behind the fiercest of competitors. This is an urgent call to the collective American enterprise to step up in space or lose out at a pivotal time.
Reusable rockets and innovative fuels are lowering launch costs, making trips to low Earth orbit (LEO) more affordable and rapidly more frequent. Space technology companies are racing to build the first commercial, on-orbit destinations to make space manufacturing a reality. Indeed, a group of companies, led by Sierra Space, is building an end-to-end business platform in LEO to accelerate the new space economy and produce breakthrough products that benefit life on Earth.
The signs are all around us: Humans are now living in the orbital age.
The orbital age is the next industrial revolution driven by the underlying technologies that are commercializing space. It is an era of historical transformation marked by the transition from 60 years of human space exploration to human space commercialization. In the orbital age, civilization pivots from flying a handful of astronauts to a government-run space station, to transporting thousands of people on a fleet of spaceplanes to a constellation of commercial space destinations where they live and work for months at a time.
Existing companies in every segment of the industrials sector—biotech, pharmaceuticals and energy—will operate the factories of the future in microgravity, extending our cities and communities into space. In the orbital age, the numbers of humans in space will reach critical mass and establish a permanent presence and lasting civilization off world.
The question is: Will the United States lead this industrial revolution?
President John F. Kennedy’s famous call to action in 1962, in front of an assembled crowd of 40,000 people on a scorching hot September day in Houston, changed the course of human space exploration and America’s leadership in space. “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” President Kennedy declared.
The United States was the leader in the past era of space exploration and must be the leader in the new era of space commercialization.
Geopolitics turned to LEO-politics earlier this year when Russia threatened to pull out of the International Space Station (ISS) over Ukrainian war sanctions imposed by the United States and other nations. The future of the ISS and the risk of a gap for continued U.S. presence in LEO have garnered headlines for months.
We must not lose sight, however, of the biggest and most concerning risk to the United States’ leadership in the commercial orbital age: China.
China is accelerating its strategy to dominate LEO and beyond, quietly building out its Tiangong space station with five construction missions planned this year. In fact, two sets of taikonauts are set to install and conduct experiments on the Chinese science modules Wentian, which translates to “Quest for the Heavens,” and Mengtian, which translates to “Dreaming of the Heavens,” before the year is out. As the United States and other nations call for sustainable growth in LEO, China is showing no sign of slowing down and, in fact, could outpace the rest of the world in space transportation and LEO infrastructure.
It is in the best interest of the United States to help accelerate plans for new commercial space stations if the nation wants to continue its lead in LEO scientific research and pioneer the industrialization of on-orbit manufacturing. The next industrial revolution is happening in space, and the United States must lead it.
NASA understands the urgency and plans to extend ISS operations to 2030. The agency recently launched the Commercial LEO Destinations program in partnership with American companies, including Sierra Space and our partner Blue Origin, to maintain an uninterrupted U.S. presence in LEO. Now businesses across the nation need to follow NASA’s lead, understand the agency’s efforts to head off the impending gap in LEO and ensure that the United States continues to lead in crucial scientific research that benefits life on Earth.
The ISS changed our planet through myriad scientific breakthroughs. Fundamental disease research in microgravity is helping experts better understand Alzheimer’s, asthma, heart disease and cancer. Researchers invented new water purification systems, learned how to grow food and made discoveries about muscle atrophy and bone loss. Since 2013, nearly all on-orbit research and development has utilized the ISS U.S. National Laboratory and this research has produced profound medical results.
Now consider that fewer than 300 people have ever lived and worked on the ISS. Their work, published in thousands of scientific publications, led to discoveries that changed the world. So much science came from so few people who had such limited access to the research environment. What might be possible with more?
Access to space is the key to advancing humanity. Access provides a global perspective, which leads to greater understanding and, ultimately, to the discovery of breakthrough technologies. The ISS is as old as the internet; both came online at the same time. The more people who embraced the “information superhighway,” the more ideas were born of it. The internet has since changed the global economy and the lives of more than four billion active users worldwide.
Humanity is entering another large-scale transformative period now, not unlike the information age. If only more people had access. New commercial platforms—multiple on-orbit destinations and in-space manufacturing centers—will open an era of “space for all,” with thousands of people living and working in LEO. Broad access and sustained presence will lead human civilization into a new era of scientific discovery.
Commercial platforms allow room to grow in space as research transforms into production. Full on-orbit manufacturing is the next giant leap for humankind. Building new, free-flying commercial destinations in LEO, independent of the ISS, will make this leap possible. The ISS opened an opportunity to understand the research around new products. New commercial LEO destinations will open the door to the production of new products.
Tissue engineering in microgravity could lead to growing organs for thousands of transplant patients on Earth from their own cells rather than waiting for a match from a donor. Engineering protein crystals and manufacturing new drugs in LEO that target specific cancer cells will transform human healthcare. Building fiber optics in space that are significantly higher performing, of greater purity and higher efficiency than what’s currently available will have a huge impact on telecommunications here on Earth. A whole realm of next-generation space-made semiconductors with enhanced performance will unlock technologies in industries from digital currencies to internet of things to quantum.
Naysayers claim that a vibrant LEO economy and a space-based industrial revolution are not possible in the short term. They are wrong. If American ingenuity could put those famous boot prints in the lunar regolith back in 1969, then it is possible with today’s technologies to build affordable and accessible destinations in LEO. Commercial companies, like Sierra Space, are already working to do just that. Sierra Space is building the LIFE™ habitat, a three-story commercial habitation and science platform designed for LEO. LIFE is a central component to Orbital Reef, a mixed-use business park in LEO under development by Sierra Space and Blue Origin, which is expected to be operational by 2027.
The time and opportunity are here now—in 2022—for the United States to provide the right regulatory environment and business climate for American companies to invest in LEO infrastructure. Like the railroad, internet and telecommunications, electric vehicle and sustainable energy industries that came before the orbital age, accelerating the commercialization of space by the end of this decade will benefit life on Earth.
Tom Vice is chief executive officer of Sierra Space, a leading commercial space company with more than 30 years and 500 missions of space flight heritage that is building platforms in space to benefit life on Earth.
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