On the Commercial Space Executive Leadership discussion board, expert instructor Charles Miller answers: why is it so difficult to work in the space business?


Student 1:

Dear Charles,

I am not sure if we have a chance to discuss the difficulty of space business or not. If not, I would like to discuss why the space business is more difficult to break into/work in than other businesses, or why it’s so different from other businesses.

Is it because we need large CAPEX for the space business?
Is it because of the gap between the consumers who have dreams for the space and the real clients – mainly government now- as B2B business?

Charles Miller:

This is a great question to think about, and ponder. This kind of introspection could suggest some lines of attack for an entrepreneurial venture.

If you believe the cost barriers are dropping (or will drop) in one area — this suggests you might focus on that area.

One way to think about this question is as a matter of history, based on empirical data. From that perspective the difference in difficulty is not “static” over time.

50 years ago, getting into space was too difficult (except for the largest and most committed nation states.) Over time, it has steadily become easier and easier. Today, many nations are doing it, and companies are starting to do it as well.

What are the reasons for this?

Some of the change is the diffusion of knowledge around the world, which has been slowed down substantially based on export controls, but is still taking place. Some of the change is based on the internet, where people with expertise can collaborate and share knowledge. Some of the change is based on the explosion in information technology that is improving design and manufacturing tools. Today’s engineer — with all the computational resources and tools at his/her fingertips — is tremendously more productive compared to the engineers from Apollo.

Some of the change is the growth of wealth that is available to be spent on space projects. The amount of space project R&D that is being funded by private sources is much greater than it was decades ago.

So, what are key remaining barriers to closing the gap?

One is culture. Many of today’s space projects are still subjected to “analyze it to death” approaches. Many of the projects you will see took a different approach on this. Instead of over-analyzing it, they focused on building, testing and learning.

This can be changed.

Another major one is the cost of space access. Access is a critical barrier, which drives how we think about cost. This is harder to change — but is also not static.

Imagine if we had a world where we have frequent, low-cost, reliable access. This is the world of Planet Labs and Nanoracks.

Our dependence on infrequent, and very expensive space launch, drives many processes and procedures today. Because space launch is expensive, we must test more … because it must work. If it does not work, we lose hundreds of millions of dollars, and have to wait years for another attempt. Because it must work, we pile on the testing and analysis, we slow it down further, and the testing further drives up the cost.

It is a vicious cycle of escalating costs.

But if somebody starts a virtuous cycle, of lower cost launch, which accelerates the testing of new technologies in orbit, which drives up flight rates, which lowers costs … you are likely to see a much different dynamic taking place.

Enroll in Commercial Space Executive Leadership Training today!

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About Instructor Charles Miller – President, NexGen Space

Charles Miller is the president of NexGen Space LLC, a space and public policy consultancy that provides client services at the juncture between civil, commercial, and national security. A former NASA Senior Advisor for Commercial Space, Miller has led a half dozen NASA commercial space teams responsible for assessing barriers to commercial space projects, satellite servicing, funded space act agreements, and commercial reusable launch vehicles and solutions for space debris removal. He is also a cofounder of NanoRacks and a founder of ProSpace, both of which are major players in the push to make space exploration more accessible to the masses.

Charles is teaching: