As a side effect of spending a lot of time yakking about the future of space exploration, I encounter many pessimistic outlooks on private space flight. One of those most common explanations for this pessimism is:
“Most of the NewSpace companies popping up everywhere are crazy and can’t possibly survive.”
Yesterday, I blogged a long response to #1, but my argument boils down to “Yes, most of the companies popping up won’t survive, but their failure will provide health to the industry as a whole in a pattern seen over and over again through time.”
“Ah yes,” says the pessimist, “we may have seen volatility in infant industries that then went on to grow and mature, but space exploration is fundamentally different than any of those: it takes far more capitol, expertise and complicated integration to start a spaceship company than a computer company, and definitely more than an internet startup.”
“Thus,” they argue, “space flight will never be supported by only private capitol and will always require handouts from the deepest pockets of all (the government.)”
This thought process makes sense given a false assumption – that the present paradigm for space exploration and the associated companies is the only one possible. But this paradigm is already beginning to erode.
The space industry is still mostly dominated by massive/complicated/expensive projects and similarly huge, vertically integrated companies – SpaceX is so noticeable because is a new company succeeding by playing roughly by the old rules. However, both recent projects (CubeSats, phoneSats, etc.) and new companies violate the paradigm by aiming not to do everything at once, but instead provide a smaller component of a bigger market.
This trend too has a historical precedent. One salient example is the ship building industry – for most of human history, one person – the master shipwright – oversaw the entire production of a ship, from raw logs to final floating product. He often even worked for whoever intended to use the ship, such as the government sponsored East India Company. Now, however, the process has been broken apart, with companies that don’t necessarily need any direct communication providing components to a shipyard – making the process so much more efficient. I foresee a similar trend in space flight – eventually there will be companies that just make, say, space toilets, without worrying about who is launching it or where the space plumbing comes from.