This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Small Satellite Conference, sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Utah State University. For 30 years, we as an industry have been pushing the limits of what we can do to deliver the impossible. We’ve come together — a band of dreamers, engineers, entrepreneurs, investors, and enterprises — to propel what was once a small, nascent industry serving a handful of government clients to become a potential mainstream contributor to our global economy.
Yes, the industry is growing at an unprecedented rate. Launch records are being broken as early constellations seek access to space. This year alone, hundreds of smallsats will be launched. In the past year, constellations with thousands of spacecraft have been proposed by companies big and small, including SpaceX, Boeing, OneWeb, Google, Planet and BlackSky, to address surging demand for real-time geospatial intelligence and global mobile connectivity. It’s a bull market and the party is just getting started!
But we’re not there yet.
In fact, the early business plans and public relations campaigns are the easy part. Making it a reality is difficult. Now that we are in the spotlight, we all need to do our part or the party will end quickly. For everyone. I say this because I lived through the last party.
It was 1995 and we were going to wire the world from space … the first time. Crazy constellation concepts were being announced every few months in this publication and others. Unfortunately, a series of events transpired and it all came to a sudden halt in the spring of 1998. Iridium, Teledesic and Globalstar all went bankrupt and so did the launch companies relying on their success. I was at Kistler Aerospace, working to build a two-stage reusable launch vehicle. In June 1998, we had 1,400 people working across a best-in-class contractor team, spending a million dollars each day. Two short months later, we were down to 100 employees.
It took almost 20 years for the investment environment to shift, and we are now in the midst of another low-Earth orbit space renaissance. Technology has changed; we’ve figured out how to transform Moore’s Law to fuel another smallsat revolution. With it, we have a rare opportunity to take a $100 million market and turn it into a $10 billion or even $100 billion market.
While I’m as excited as everyone else, I want to remind our community we need to be accountable to ourselves and each other. Although it may feel like “the road goes on forever and the party never ends,” that is far from true. We can fight over millions only to lose out on billions. Let’s not foul this up.
To ensure that doesn’t happen, we need to do the following:
n Cut the hype and deliver. The world wants to take advantage of these new services. However, technology entrepreneurs have a tendency to over-promise and under-deliver. As a sector, we are under more scrutiny now than ever before to see if we can fulfill our promises. We need to execute, which means we should under-promise and over-deliver.
n Promote real business plans for real markets. Engineers often come up with a solution and then find a problem they can solve with it. Sometimes this works, but most times it doesn’t. Smallsats have many valuable applications, but they aren’t the solution for everything. In order to be credible as an industry, we need to focus on the problem organizations are attempting to solve. Does a small satellite provide a unique and compelling solution to that problem?
n Enable an expanded investment community. Investors and markets are fickle and they can turn on and shut off overnight. One failure has the potential to hurt the entire industry and impact investment options for a wide swath of space businesses. Denigrating a fellow space company, even if they are a competitor, could scare away a multitude of investors. A better approach is to focus on differentiating your product or service while promoting the industry as a whole. If you can help someone else be successful along the way, you’re paying it forward for everyone. We need a long string of success stories to transform the investment perception around space companies to enable robust streams of early-, mid- and late-stage investment.
n Mitigate orbital debris and the risk of uncontrolled conjunctions. Future collisions are inevitable, but as a group we need to define and adhere to our own set of best practices. Gone are the days where meeting the 25-year life limit was good enough (and shame on those who don’t even do that!). In the near future, propulsion or collision avoidance systems and key subsystem redundancy will be required for spacecraft of all sizes, even if they are only operational for a few years. We all need to be extra vigilant to protect the space we operate in and assuage those who fear the effects of orbital debris.
n Guarantee access to space. In this day and age, getting to orbit is still incredibly difficult. There have been many discussions this past year about ICBMs, international launch vehicles like the PSLV, and the emerging small launch vehicles. Frankly, we need them all and we should support each other to make them all happen. I support progressive policies that enable a new suite of low-cost and hopefully reusable launch systems. And while they are coming to market, it’s absolutely critical that today’s spacecraft reach orbit so they can generate revenue and prove to current investors that these new systems can deliver ROI. Without it, future constellations will not get funded and new launch vehicles won’t have a market.
n Empower a robust regulatory framework. ITAR, FAA, FCC, NOAA — we are in the acronym business. We are also in the space business. There is a body of national and international regulations that governs what we do and how we do it. While it may appear onerous, we cannot be cavalier about these laws. A few bad actors could penalize and taint the entire industry for decades. We need to push for a progressive regulatory environment and more funding for these regulating agencies. For example, the NOAA office that issues remote sensing licenses has only a few employees and a process not equipped to handle hundreds of applications. We must respect our regulatory agencies and their efforts to cope with our burgeoning sector and its onslaught, and work to help them secure more funding to expand licensing offices. This will benefit our community as a whole.
n Accept and even encourage failure as an option. We need to remind each other — and the broader community of users and investors — that what we are doing is really hard. It’s not a matter of if we’ll have failures but when. I applaud SpaceX and its candidness as the company has worked through success and failure to transform launch into a low-cost reusable industry. The company’s barge landing attempts have become Internet viewing phenomena. Whether we experience triumphs or setbacks, we need to support one another and collectively educate the public that this actually is rocket science after all. A robust industry is one that can absorb these challenges and continue forward undeterred.
When I reflect on the state of the smallsat industry, I think of Geoffrey Moore’s iconic book Crossing the Chasm. In Moore’s book, he identifies five main segments of market adoption: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. We’ve come such a long way in the past 30 years. Smallsats are moving into the mainstream. The next few years could very well determine if we get across that chasm where industry — both commercial and government — regularly turn to smallsats to solve the world’s problems. Our actions will determine if we are successful or not.
Finally, this revolution will transform how we look at the planet. It will democratize access for all to solve significant global challenges. It will accelerate the Internet of Things. It will ensure our children and grandchildren have technologies we can only dream of.
LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman has been quoted as saying: “We create companies because we want to change the world.” As a community we have, and we are.
Jason Andrews is CEO of Spaceflight Industries, founded in 2010 to be a provider of routine, low-cost access to space for small and secondary payloads.