Since the 1960s, the market for commercial space operations has been limited almost entirely to communications satellites and commercial rocket launchers, with some tentative ventures in the areas of remote sensing and weather observation. Because of the value of the information they carry—television signals, some telephone links, and all sorts of digital data—communication satellites have been able to support a fleet of costly launch vehicles. Some time around the year 2007, the available radio frequency spectrum for communication satellites will be saturated. After that, the industry will consist only of maintenance and upgrades to the existing infrastructure .
Over the next few decades, the most lucrative industry in space will probably be tourism. On Earth in the early twenty-first century, tourism is the second largest export industry. (The largest is energy, in the form of oil.) A tourist industry in space will reduce the cost of getting into orbit because of the sheer volume of launches required. This industry will require launch vehicles not only for transporting people but also for transporting the space-borne facilities tourists will be visiting and for resupplying those facilities. Demand for low-cost launchers will increase by orders of magnitude, promoting competition and driving costs down.
Less costly launchers promise new markets for industrial processes in space. Many industrial processes may benefit dramatically from operating in the weightless environment. So far, no such venture has been cost-effective; the cost of getting the machines and materials into space and the finished products back exceeds the potential sales of the materials produced.
Electrophoresis is a process that uses electric fields to separate fluids; it is used especially in the pharmaceuticals industry to make very valuable (and very expensive) drugs. A team made up of Johnson & Johnson and McDonnell Douglas flew a prototype electrophoresis system on four space shuttle flights, with an eye to making it a commercial venture. Initially, it looked as if producing pharmaceuticals in orbit would make sense from a business standpoint, but the companies ultimately determined that it would be less costly to make their products on the ground. Dramatically lower launch costs would turn the business equations around.
Lower launch costs open space to a host of other industries. Most of the potential markets identified to date are in esoteric high-tech fields, such as super-strength drawn fibers, single-crystal metals, and protein crystals. Others are more familiar, such as movie and television production, for which space would provide an excellent shooting location. These markets are only forerunners of new markets that will open as commercial business moves into space. Current research in space processing methods might lead to some surprising markets for both industrial and consumer products.
Transgenic plants, which are made by crossing the genes from diverse species, promise to create whole new species with new flavors and dramatically increased crop yields. In an experiment flown on the space shuttle, a rose plant produced some new, very desirable fragrances in the zero gravity environment. Moreover, several prototype systems have been developed that may one day lead to the deployment of huge electrical power plants in orbit, or even on the Moon, that collect energy directly from the Sun and transmit the power to Earth on microwave beams. Zeolite crystals are yet another product that might one day be produced in space. These crystals command high prices in the chemical processing industry because of their ability to selectively filter out specific chemicals. Though they are scarce on Earth, they can be manufactured efficiently in space.
Opportunities for new markets in space extend to the medical industry as well, which will benefit from improved efficiency in the production of pharmaceuticals and entire new technologies, such as components for bone replacement.
Finally, developing industries in space create new markets to meet the demands of the space-borne industries. People working in space need places to live, work, and play; they need food to eat, clothes to wear, and transportation systems to get around. In short, they need everything that people need on Earth, and each of these needs is a new market for the space entrepreneur.
see also Launch Industry (volume 1); Launch Services (volume 1); Made in Space (volume 1); Space Tourism, Evolution of (volume 4); Tourism (volume 1).
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