The space economy matters - an enterprise view on space as the International Space Station heads towards de-orbit

Neil Raden Profile picture for user Neil Raden December 9, 2022
The international space station has been orbiting for 21 years - but change is afoot. Here's why enterprises should care about the emerging space economy.

Cloud euro sign under magnifying glass on blue sky © spacezerocom
(© spacezerocom - Adobe Stock)

The International Space Station (ISS), as of 2022, has been in orbit for 21 years. In the emptiness of space, one might think such an object might persist forever. But that's not the case.

Why is a discussion of the ISS relevant in an enterprise business site? Because the ISS provides significant space-related business experience in, what is, today, a testbed for an exploding (in a good sense) economic activity.

The twin Voyager crafts were launched 45 years ago, and are still operating 15 billion miles away. It takes light 20 hours and 33 minutes to travel that difference. That means it takes roughly two days to send a message to Voyager 1 and get a response – a delay the mission team is accustomed to. But the ISS is massively larger, low-orbit, and a more complicated machine. As a result, it won’t persist. Between the effect of cosmic rays, collisions with space junk and the simple decline of mechanical systems, its projected original end of life was set at 2016. Its longevity and durability exceeded expectations, and currently, it is set to be “de-orbited” in 2030.

Understanding the experience of the ISS – international cooperation, risks and benefits, advances in medicine and manufacturing and, unfortunately, the complexities of its end-of-life are a laboratory in understanding the space economy.

In a study, Future Uses of Space Out to 2050, the authors James BlackLinda Slapakova, and Kevin Martin of the Rand Corporation authors,  raise three central questions:

  1. How will the way we use space be by 2050?
  2. Who will the critical space actors be?
  3. How well-placed is the UK to address future changes?

For baby boomers like me, space was an exotic enterprise of scientists, engineers and brave astronauts. Today, access to space is essential to modern everyday life. Communications, GPS, and weather forecasting, for example, are day-to-day affairs. It is, in essence, a second 'space race,' with risks and rewards to an economy’s security and way of life.

RAND conducted a study for the UK Space Agency to explore the variety of possible future uses of space out to 2050, and spot the implications for the UK space sector. Specifically, the research explored how commercial opportunities in space will evolve, what industries will lead, and how well-placed the UK is (and, by implication, everyone else) to address future trends in the space economy.

The space market may have thousands of contractors and sub-contractors, but they all have only one primary contractor – the government. Even Messer’s Bezos, Branson and Musk cannot light their boosters' fuse without their federal authorities' permission.

Some key findings on the space economy

Not surprisingly, a key finding of the research was that new space markets might no longer be separate from the rest of the economy. Over the next thirty years, their projections of the space economy envision a growing integration of space-based and terrestrial activities as privatized enterprises. Significant change is expected in the space economy's activities related to sending spacecraft and satellites into space and using space data to offer products, services and ground segment applications.

Out to 2050, the upstream segment may experience both incremental and transformative change:

  • Key developments include developing, adopting and adapting new and emerging technologies, evolving space flight and operations concepts, and applying new design and manufacturing techniques, including 'Industry 4.0'.

Future downstream markets could encompass a variety of space, hybrid and terrestrial activities and end users. The report cited around 200 potential use cases, and organized these into 15 clusters:

  • Agriculture
  • Climate and environmental protection
  • Energy
  • Construction, repair and engineering
  • Extractive industries
  • Tourism, culture and entertainment
  • Defense, security and safety
  • Finance and commerce
  • Health, medicine and pharmaceuticals
  • Illicit activities
  • Logistics
  • Manufacturing
  • Science, research and education
  • Telecommunications
  • Transport

Various socio-technological enablers and barriers could affect upstream and downstream space markets up to 2050:

Critical enablers include technological innovation, falling launch costs and commercialization. Conversely, regulatory and sociocultural factors represent prominent barriers to the future development of the space economy.

The development of new markets and use cases may render the space sector increasingly inseparable from the broader economy by 2050:

Continuously foster innovation and the capacity of space-related organizations to leverage new concepts or technologies that may increase the agility, adaptability, competitiveness and resilience of the UK space sector.

The de-orbiting of the ISS - business and environmental implications

No matter where you would bring it down, pieces would detach and cause debris over a 1500-2000 mile path. One alternative is to bring it down over an “uninhabited” like the southern Indian Ocean of Antarctica. It seems to me the term “uninhabited” is a human-centric concept. Will the ISS drop into the ocean, complete with polluting chemicals used on the ISS for scientific experimentation or even fuel?

In August of 2022,  NASA solicited ideas from organizations to conceive of the ISS to end its mission, currently planned for 2030. The RFI was posted on the US government contractors' website, as a solicitation for:

Responses from interested parties to gauge the industry’s capabilities to provide de-orbit capabilities for the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA’s PFI is to

Assess the industry’s capability to design, develop, manufacture, launch, and provide the on-orbit operation to enable a controlled re-entry and the safe deorbit (of) the ISS. So NASA appears to be testing the waters and stimulating competition among the firms with the proper can-do attitude.

At the moment, the ISS is fine, but a 2017 federal law requires NASA to evaluate both the feasibility of keeping the station flying beyond its current mission parameters, as well as analyzing if safely de-orbiting the ISS is even possible and, if so, how much it will cost.

Most likely plan: atmospheric drag plus a propulsion assist

Plans for bringing down the ISS can either rely on natural atmospheric drag or propel it into a fatal orbit using some propulsion. Once the station drops below 270 km (168 miles), a combination of drag – possibly propulsion-assisted – will put the ISS in orbit just 150 km (93 miles) high at perigee.

A final burn will follow, and the de-orbit vehicle’s computers will guide the station to its doom “within a predefined, uninhabited corridor” to be chosen later. The solution must be in place at least one year before the system is needed for safety reasons, NASA said:

Although nominal ISS EOL (end of life) is late 2030, the Government requires that this deorbit capability be available as soon as possible to protect for contingencies that could drive early re-entry and beyond 2030 in the event of further ISS mission extensions.

In other words, if they need to evacuate it, and bring it down for 2030. This makes me wonder why they don’t already have an emergency plan since it’s been floating up there for twenty+ years.

The ISS won't be the last space station

Things aren’t going so well with Russia, however. In a series of tweets, Dmitry Rogozinprior, before being dismissed as the head of the Russian Space Agency, suggested that:

Europe, Asia, and the US could not do without Russia's cooperation in space. If you block partnership with us, who will save the ISS from uncontrolled deorbiting and falling on the territory of the US or Europe? [The ISS could fall] on India or China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS doesn't fly over Russia, so all the risks are yours.

His successor, Yury Borisov, reiterated Rogozin's threats by confirming that Russia would end its cooperation with the ISS "after 2024. It’s mostly bluster. The ISS could continue without Russia until 2030 

NASA and its controllers in the US government have committed to operations through 2030. The de-orbiting ISS will be controlled into the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area (SPOUA), where other space stations and rockets have been buried

 It's expected that companies like SpaceX, Axiom, Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman will build so-called Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations with NASA's help. In a report published by NASA in January, Russia was still listed as one of the lead partners. But that was also before Russia invaded Ukraine.  

After 2030, space operations such as those conducted on the ISS today are slated to "transition" to the private sector. It doesn't end there: there will be many space stations

Along with gas and grain, the International Space Station has featured heavily in the political rhetoric around Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Russia reaffirmed its intention to end cooperation on the International Space Station, but that's not the end. They're building their own. China is too.  

But plans to build a Russian space station have been public for more than a year. In April 2021, Borisov — then Russia's Deputy Prime Minister — floated the idea, having bemoaned the condition of the ISS after two decades in orbit.    

Then in April 2022, Rogozin said that Russia's Energia Space Rocket Corporation had been commissioned to build the first module, with Russia aiming for a 2025 launch. All this stands to reason, with China also currently building a new space station.  

SpaceX — a leading commercial firm already contracted by NASA to deliver people and supplies to the ISS — wants a central role in protecting the station's future. Axiom contracted to ferry the first private crew to the ISS, has committed to building its own space station. And it wants to use the ISS as a jumping-off point for that venture. 

But whoever it is, and no matter what they do in the future, everyone in the industry knows how hard it is to transport heavy materials into space. At least some of these companies are likely hoping to salvage parts of the ISS.

My take

The next ten years will be a chaotic scramble for commercial companies to stake their claim in the space economy. The US (NASA), Russia and China have been successful, they are bureaucratic and slow. While deep space exploration and military exploits consume government budgets, truly innovative products and sevices will develop from the private sector. 

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