Pioneers push the business case for space

If you’ve ever wondered why you keep seeing videos of Elon Musk and his team launching and landing rockets over and over again, Tim Hughes, Senior Vice President and General Counsel for SpaceX, says their motivation is simple: “Reusability is the Holy Grail of space.”

The business case for expanding space operations for companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic gets better and better as the costs of going to space continue to decline. In fact, private corporations are now leading the way on space operations to the point where NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told the audience at CME Group’s annual Global Financial Leadership Conference that he wants his agency to be one of the biggest “customers” in the low-Earth orbit commercial business.

With SpaceX currently snagging 60% of the global market for commercial space travel, Bridenstine boasted how space travel is now a “US export.” The boss of NASA, whose passion for all things space booms almost as loud as his voice, said the business side of space travel should not be under-estimated. There are some technologies, like 3D printed human organs and artificial retinas for the human eye, that are being developed in space. Should those technologies grow to be lucrative, the business case for expanded space travel that doesn’t include space tourism will likely attract more competitors.

SpaceX’s Hughes echoed Bridenstine’s comments, saying that while having NASA as a client is a tremendous help, growth in the market will rely on establishing a blend of private and government customers.

Stephen Attenborough, who is Virgin Galactic’s Commercial Director, said reusability is also driving down the costs for space tourism. “A ticket to space costs $250,000. That is expensive in Earth terms, but not expensive in space terms.” Virgin Galactic, which recently went public, currently has hundreds of paying customers queuing up for a ride into space.

Hughes also noted how the reusability of rocket boosters is also driving down the cost of insurance as providers have started to prefer issuing policies for equipment that is “flight proven.”

Ultimately, Bridenstine is very bullish on the immediate future of space travel, in part, because of the audacity of pioneers like Musk and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson.

“We know there are going to be some failures,” Bridenstine says. “SpaceX is good because they try, they fail and they fix. That is a good thing. Elon posts videos of big explosions… as long as there are no humans onboard, we are OK with that.”