Sunday, April 9, 2017

Commercial Space Industry Launches a New Phase

Rockets, satellites, and the services they provide, once the domain of governments, are increasingly launched and managed by privately owned companies. Although private aerospace firms have contracted with federal agencies since the onset of the Space Age six decades ago, U.S. government policy has sought to spur innovation and drive down costs by expanding the roles of satellite manufacturers and commercial launch providers.

Global spending on space activity reached an estimated $323 billion in 2015. Of this amount, nearly 40% was generated by commercial space products and services and 37% by commercial infrastructure and support industries. The U.S. government—including national security agencies and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—accounted for about 14% of global spending; government spending by other countries was responsible for the remaining 10%.

The satellite and launch vehicle supply chains are global, with a small number of manufacturers. In 2015, global satellite manufacturing revenues were $6 billion; launches booked $2.6 billion in revenue. Ground stations—the largest part of the commercial space infrastructure—generated more than $100 billion in revenue, largely from geolocation and navigation equipment.

The face of the U.S. space industry is changing with a government shift toward use of fixed price contracts for commercial services, new entrants with new launch products, and an increase in the use of smaller satellites:

NASA’s commercial cargo program and other federal contracts are supporting the growth of the commercial launch industry, with less expensive rockets, some of which are planned to be reusable. Many of the new space-related companies are attracting rising levels of venture capital.

Aggressive pricing by U.S. entrants is cutting into the international launch market once dominated by foreign providers.

A renewed interest in low-cost satellites, some of which are small enough to be held in one hand, is prompting a range of start-ups and providing new accessibility to space by educational institutions, small businesses, and individual researchers.

In order to spur innovation and growth, the commercial space industry has been purposely insulated from some types of federal regulation often applied to other industries. Nevertheless, three broad federal issues will affect the industry’s future development. One is the structure of federal regulation and management; those responsibilities currently are dispersed among many agencies, and there is congressional interest in reorganizing commercial space functions at NASA and the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Transportation, and State. A second issue is the extent to which U.S. export controls are hampering U.S. satellite industry sales abroad. Export controls have recently been revamped to enable export of more commercial space products and services, but impediments may remain to reestablishing U.S. space product competitiveness. A third concern is that new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations allowing wireless communication providers to share spectrum previously dedicated to satellite transmissions may result in interference. The commission has pledged to continue studying the issue.

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