At the height of the race for the moon, everyone imagined that by now we would be living in a space age. Instead we got the information age which has given us access to unparalleled global connections and almost the sum of human knowledge at our fingertips. Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” assumed the information revolution would happen alongside the move into space, in fact it seems they had to be sequential. Despite a many decade hiatus, space is back in vogue and the connections to the technology industry are intimate.
In the 1960s, the Cold War spurred the US to race to the moon in the largest peacetime project in history. The hangover from the massive drain on the budget (where up to 400,000 Americans were employed by the programme through NASA or its contractors and many times that indirectly) actually delayed space development through the next fifty years. Today, it is well recognised that the massive investment in technology had huge spinoff benefits, and being a peacetime project it didn’t come with the truly horrible consequences of wartime investments in technology.
As exciting as the robot explorers of the solar system are, the future of our species is inspired by our own travels. With the aging Russian Soyuz capsules as the main working space vehicles for human travel it is time for a new generation to enter the race. The increasingly sophisticated, autonomous, systems that have powered the exploration of the solar system have, however, been both beneficiaries of and contributors to our Earth-bound robotic technologies. Far from relying on manual intervention, it is now possible for unbelievably complex decisions to be made without human intervention by machines that are too far from home to get human help.
It isn’t a coincidence that big names such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are behind the new space age. There are still quick riches to be made from connecting people on the Internet in new ways, but real wealth is created from fundamental shifts. Musk is betting on infrastructure and Bezos on supply chains. Both need new innovations and inventions to achieve their commercial aims and support Tesla and Amazon respectively. Both companies are priced by investors on potential rather than profit and risk a collapse of their value if future inventions don’t continue their apparently endless expansions.
In an era of digitisation of the physical world, it’s hard to say “it’s not rocket science”, because it is! To make our world work better, millions (and eventually billions) of devices have to be integrated. The technology required to safely launch humans and successfully reuse some of the equipment takes this requirement to extremes. Batteries, fuels, guidance systems and sensors are just the start of a tightly integrated network which has to operate together to take a vehicle into space and return it safely to Earth. With Earth’s orbit becoming increasingly crowded with active equipment, and inactive junk, smart traffic management is going to make the race for autonomous vehicles look like child’s play!
The beneficiaries of the technologies of the new space industry will include the energy grid, electric vehicles, autonomous transport, medical life support and propulsion for air travel, to name just a few that we can imagine today. The technologies that will spin out of investment in a new generation of space activity will be just as disruptive to today’s business models as the recent explosion of new, technology-fuelled, platforms.
The information age has removed many inefficiencies in the distribution of existing resources. The shift of many economies from production to services reflects the huge waste that was occurring in the use of infrastructure and goods. The ongoing focus on financial services, telecommunications and other services sectors, leveraging disruptive information technologies, suggests that there is still much further to go. However, no matter how you look at it, the information age is not adding to the sum of resources for humanity to draw on.
Turning our information age into a space revolution is different. Far from just reallocating what we have today, it promises access to minerals from extra-terrestrial ore bodies and super-efficient farm production to name just a couple of opportunities to add to the sum of resources available to humanity.
Just as investors have gotten their heads around the transformation of existing business models to disruptive platforms, we are all going to have to think about business and government differently all over again. The ability to think about every aspect of what we do through the use of disruptive technology will serve us well in the years ahead. Just when we thought we might see some stability in how we do business, it is clear that the changes have barely begun.