From space taxis to Mars missions, five space industry insiders discuss the biggest extra-terrestrial opportunities

By Carolyn Barber on June 29, 2023

Seemingly dormant for decades, space activity over the past several years has ramped up to unprecedented levels. The year 2022 saw a record 186 successful rocket launches, as private companies, led by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, continued to press into an industry that once was associated mostly with government entities and competing nations.

The relationship is a working one. As private firms build reusable rockets, satellites the size of a shoebox or even a deck of cards, next-generation spacesuits and orbital transfer vehicles,NASA’s scientists and researchers are freed up to ponder loftier goals. The government-backed space program, meanwhile, acts as a sort of anchor tenant for some of the products, enabling the companies toinnovate, advance technologies, find economies of scale and turn a profit on other work, including the burgeoning area of space tourism.

It isn’t always a smooth path—billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit filed for bankruptcy earlier this year after a failed launch left the company scrambling for financing–but the opportunity for public-private collaboration is both enticing and, for those long in the industry, exhilarating. But what is the end game? What is our future in space?

For perspective, Fortune contacted five UrS. experts: three NASA astronauts and the executives of two firms heavily invested in space technology, travel and satellite imagery. What follows is a transcript of those conversations, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Fortune: Why do we still go to space?

Ellen Ochoa, veteran of four Space Shuttle flights, 11th director of the Johnson Space Center and the first Hispanic woman in space: There are several reasons, but one is the discovery of science. We may have been going into space for 50 or 60 years, but we really know very little about it as an environment and what we can learn from that.

Mike Moses, former NASA mission management team chairman and current president of Virgin Galactic: For me, space exploration is just – it’s second nature, right? It’s the classic line from Stark Trek: ‘The final frontier.’ But there’s also the technological development and what this all does for life back on Earth. I was always a believer in big, audacious goals.

Ellen Ochoa: In some ways, the most important reason is inspiration. I think people just really resonate with something that seems very difficult if not almost impossible to do, and then you get a team of people together and you actually accomplish it. People have been inspired by NASA throughout history.

Stan Love, who flew aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis and currently serves as deputy chief of the Astronaut Offices Rapid Prototyping Laboratory, where he develops cockpit displays and controls for Orion: I had a NASA administrator who talked about the reasons: to improve national unity, foster international unity, bolster engineering and science, feed the human spirit for exploration. And then there’s the actual reason, which is because it’s just totally cool.

Q: How has the involvement of private industry altered the equation?

Mike Safyan, vice president of launch at Planet, which produces daily satellite imagery of the entire Earth: Typically, the space industry built its own components, and that was a very different supply chain with very different economies of scale. Now the space industry has started to incorporate all these advances that we’re seeing in commercial electronics. They’re more powerful, smaller and lower cost, because they’re driven by consumer markets around things like smartphones and laptops.

Suni Williams, who has spent more than 300 days in space, ran the Boston Marathon while in orbit and will be part of the NASA Starliner crews maiden voyage to the International Space Station: I think folks have recognized that, wow, this is an interesting way to get things to space – a little bit cheaper for the tax dollar, potentially. And (private companies) are not maybe hindered by ‘the way we’ve always done it.’ They can let their creativity guide the way.

Mike Safyan: Instead of NASA having to go out and build its own rocket, they can contract Boeing or SpaceX or whoever to use their rockets as a commercial service, which is much cheaper and helps support that commercial industry. Government organizations were building satellites the size of a school bus. We can now do a lot of those things in something about the size of a shoebox – and that’s a really, really big deal.

Q: So how do those private-sector technologies and economies of scale come into play?

Stan Love: What SpaceX has is, they are not afraid to do it – because it’s cool. NASA can’t stand up in front of Congress and say, ‘Hey, we need an extra $27 billion because it’s cool.’ But when you’re backed by a future-oriented visionary with unlimited funding, you can say, ‘Yeah, do it.’ That also enables them to attract young, excited and very talented engineers who don’t know that what they’re doing is impossible – so they do it anyway.

Mike Safyan: We (at Planet) have about 200 satellites that are currently flying…working hand in hand to create a data set that has never existed before in human history at this scale. We’re able to scan the entire Earth every day, taking space technology and pointing it back down to Earth – able to image the Amazon Rainforest to help protect it from deforestation, or track the effects of climate change. And there are other areas of growth in space technology, particularly around communications.

Ellen Ochoa: We’ve had two companies (Boeing and SpaceX) who have been delivering cargo back and forth to the International Space Station, and SpaceX is delivering crew. And when NASA selected those companies, nobody really had that capability yet. Really remarkable.

Q: But most of the private companies would have to eventually show profit in order to make this work, right?

Mike Moses: Space has always been commercial. If you go back to the Apollo and Saturn 5, NASA didn’t build much – they contracted private companies to build everything. (Now) it’s like, ‘I need these things. You (private companies) do it for me.’ Kind of like a taxi service. And that’s what we see right now with SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada. The government still plays a role by setting that big, audacious target.

Suni Williams: The U.S. government has helped some of these companies along the way by rewarding contracts, which is great. But not just one or two – it’s like 10, 12 companies. A bunch are coming out there and doing stuff, not only rocketry, but also spacesuits and landers and other things like that.

Moses: Now you start to open the door in space tourism, certainly here at Virgin Galactic (taking paying riders to low Earth orbit)…It’s that concept of being a spaceline, like an airline where regular, routine, easy access to space is what we’re all about.

Q: What is the next hill to climb, so to speak?

Stan Love: NASA is phasing up to restart exploration of the Moon. We sent six crews there in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and then that sort of fell by the wayside. And we have been working hard on getting to and from low Earth orbit reliably and safely…We’re flying very wealthy tourists up there, sort of looking for a toehold where industry could turn a profit.

Suni Williams: The Moon to Mars (strategy) is our outlook. That’s what we want to do: Go back to the moon sustainably, which means we need to have a lander presence there. We need to probably have a space station where we do science experiments, where we would build something on the Moon…It’d be the practice ground for how we’re going to then understand how we could take people to Mars.

Q: Can we actually get to Mars? With people?

Ellen Ochoa: There’s nothing fundamentally, technically beyond our capabilities to get to Mars. In general, what NASA has looked at is getting people there. It’s probably going to take six, eight months, depending on when you launch, and the same amount of time coming back, and then staying there a year, so a 2 ½ year mission. One of the big questions is, how do you keep people alive and healthy during that time? NASA has used the International Space Station to do a lot of work on human health and performance, (but) it can’t answer all of the questions.

Mike Safyan: I think that SpaceX’s Starship (spacecraft and rocket, capable of carrying up to 100 people) does enable a Mars presence. That’s certainly been Elon’s goal from the very beginning of founding SpaceX. I think that as Starship develops and gets human-rated, and there’s more infrastructure built out to land habitats and then people, I think we’ll get there in our lifetimes. NASA has a very critical role in supporting that.

Suni Williams: NASA’s goal and part of the (private) commercialization is like, Hey, let’s spend our money on exploration…It’s a little bit crazy, when we think about landers and spacecraft and all that stuff, but when I first got to the NASA building, the International Space Station seemed like it was a crazy idea, too.

Q: How soon might some of this start happening?

Suni Williams: I think in this decade we will be having people on the Moon, and I think the idea would be that as soon as we can get it going, we would want to start having some type of presence on the Moon sustainably. As soon as we put people there, we’ll understand how hard it is to do it.

Stan Love: For Mars, that is more difficult than any of our planners understand. I absolutely think we will get there; I just don’t think it’ll be as soon as anybody thinks. It’s going to be a very, very arduous journey, and it’s going to have human challenges that I don’t think everybody appreciates yet. The agency is still talking about the 2030s, so that automatically means 2039, and that (date) is going to slip.

Q: Given the expense of constructing space materials, initiating launches, etc., and the difficulty of turning a profit, is private industry really going to stay in it for the long haul?

Mike Safyan: ‘New Space’ is a philosophy of younger, more nimble companies, and I think the era is here to stay. We’ve seen some false starts before of attempts to do internet or cell phone usage from space, or private exploration and things that had a lot of hype. Now, I think we’ve reached escape velocity, if you pardon the pun. We’re seeing enough of an industry and business cases, and government support, funding sources from venture capitalists and other areas, to be able to keep the momentum going.

Mike Moses: I was at NASA when we started the commercial cargo contract for the space station. And that was a revolution of, ‘Let’s think about ways to get commercial companies to bring their innovation to bear and not just build what NASA wants, but instead tell NASA what it needs.’ That was, to me, the turning point.

Stan Love: Starlink, Planet and similar companies are all trying to turn a profit in lower Earth orbit, which then turns on the might of industry and capitalism – and there’s no stopping. Once they start turning a profit again, it’s going to take off and no one will be able to keep up.

Ellen Ochoa: The new launch capability that SpaceX has brought, in addition to a couple of other companies like United Launch Alliance, has really motivated other people to get involved in the space economy. We are seeing a real flourishing of that industry. We got to critical mass, is sort of the way I think about it.

Sunni Williams: ‘Let’s build a space station on the Moon so we can learn how we might want to go to Mars.’ Give people those kinds of lofty goals, and they are amazing – they rise to the challenge and they do it. The technologies allow it, the public will allows it, and human creativity allows it. It’s pretty cool.

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