The future depends on the global space ecosystem

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For all of the challenges in 2020, it was a remarkable year for the global space community. A NASA spacecraft collected samples from asteroid Bennu, and Japan’s Hayabusa-2 probe returned asteroid material to Earth. China touched down again on the moon and brought some of it back and three nations (the United States, UAE and China) launched missions to Mars. For the first time since the space shuttle retirement in 2011, U.S. astronauts returned to the International Space Station from American soil on an American rocket.

Meanwhile on Earth, aerospace enterprises responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by delivering telemedicine, modeling techniques, ventilators and personal protective equipment. Satellite networks informed our supply chains to maximize efficiencies and deliver vital supplies where they were needed most. While families and students worked and studied from home, our telecommunications architectures kept people connected so education and commerce could continue.

In these and many other examples, it is evident that space has become the critical infrastructure upon which every other infrastructure is dependent. A day without space access and space-inspired technologies would be catastrophic to the security of the world’s economies and ways of life. The space environment today is a collection of integrated systems and stakeholders, best viewed as a global space ecosystem — and every ecosystem must be managed and balanced to ensure sustainability.

The health and durability of this ecosystem depends on factors in three core mission areas: education, information and collaboration. The space economy is currently worth $424 billion, but it is forecast to reach $1 trillion in the next decade. However, seizing this potential requires us to diversify the participants, investments and partnership models that enable collaboration. Industry, finance, national security, research and other communities are all scrambling to grow the workforces needed today and build those that will be essential in the future, both for operations in space and on Earth. 

While there are 85 countries operating in space, there are thousands of commercial enterprises rising to take their place in orbit and throughout the space economy. This level of commercial activity will only increase as established and emerging companies offer goods, services and space-inspired technologies that fuel space operations, enrich space supply chains and add value to lives everywhere. Space dividends are no longer measured with national flags planted on celestial bodies. The more impactful rewards are the positive changes and advances operating in space can deliver for life on Earth.  

As a powerful example of this impact, the American Medical Association reports that the use of telemedicine tools has expanded dramatically since the start of the pandemic, with 60 to 90 percent of physicians now using some sort of telehealth services. About half of them are estimated to be using these innovations for the first time. This is only possible because of the reliable satellite constellations that permit communications and data flows connecting people wherever they are in the world.

There are revolutionary opportunities like these in nearly every industry and sector, including more efficient and productive agriculture, more agile commerce, improved education and enhanced national security. As an ecosystem that is used to adjusting to dramatic changes in extreme operating environments, the space community is prepared to pioneer and lead us to the world-changing innovations and improvements we can scarcely imagine.

Today this global environment is primed for growth and expansion but only if we commit to the steps that ensure ecosystem sustainability. This includes:

  • Expanding the diversity of people in the space community;
  • Preparing a skilled and knowledgeable workforce with room for all;
  • Balancing smart investments with sound policies to enable entrepreneurship, innovation and opportunity; and
  • Building systemic resiliency to preserve the safety and security of space infrastructure and operations.

When we invigorate and invest in education, discover and share more information and collaborate in space and throughout every industry, we will see the benefits of the space ecosystem proliferate. But we cannot take our responsibilities, successes, failures, character or competencies for granted. Too many people and ways of life depend on us. Indeed, our collective future is being built and safeguarded through space. 

As the world steadily marches out of the pandemic, we have taken with us a new, more visceral appreciation for just how quickly things can change and how that can impact our lives and societies. We now have a clearer understanding of what it takes to protect and uplift ourselves and our communities. The state of space tells us we have every hope and opportunity to do so.

Tom Zelibor, rear admiral, USN (Ret.) is CEO of Space Foundation, a 501(c)(3) global space advocate headquartered in Colorado Springs, CO.

Tags American economy global economy Infrastructure NASA Space advocacy Sustainability Telehealth

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