Humans have been doing business in orbit since the early 1960s, with "business" loosely defined in this context as any useful activity. Trained specialists, within the safety of small orbiting spacecraft, studied the Earth below and the heavens above. They conducted medical tests to see how their bodies responded to weightlessness. They did experiments on various materials to see how the lack of gravity affected their interactions. They studied the growth and behavior of plants and small animals. This early orbital activity would become the seed of today's space stations, which in turn may lead to tomorrow's space business parks.
Precursors to Space-Based Business Parks
For serious work, more spacious, dedicated orbiting laboratories were needed. The Soviets launched a series of Salyut stations beginning in 1971. The American Skylab, built from the casing of a leftover Saturn I booster, was launched in 1973 and was staffed in three missions of twenty-eight, fifty-nine, and eighty-four days.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) used the space shuttle orbiter's payload bay to conduct orbital observations and experiments for periods of up to two weeks. Commercially built SpaceHab modules and the European-built Spacelab, both riding in the payload bay, allowed scientists to conduct more serious work. Meanwhile, the Soviet's historic Mir space station grew from a single module to an ungainly but productive complex.
Scientists experimented, synthesizing chemicals, crystals, and proteins impossible to produce in full gravity. Through such experiments it is possible that scientists might discover products valuable enough to warrant orbiting factories.
Orbit is "the" place to do some useful things with proven economic impact: create global communications grids; monitor the atmosphere, weather, oceans, and changing land-use patterns; and search for unsuspected submarine and subterranean features. Much of this has been accomplished with automated satellites. Human activities in orbit have been directed at investigating the effects of microgravity on humans, animals, plants, and inanimate substances. Astronauts have also launched, retrieved, and repaired satellites and deep-space probes. The International Space Station (ISS) is being built to ramp up all these activities to the next level. Open for business with a crew of three, ISS's final design configuration would allow for a crew of seven. Further expansion of the current design is possible.
Elements of Business Parks in Space
Orbit is also an ideal place to service satellites, refuel probes on deep-space missions, and assemble large spacecraft and platforms too big to launch whole. For these activities humans will need: a fuel depot with the capacity to scavenge residual fuel, robotic tugs to take satellites to higher orbits and fetch them for servicing, a well-equipped hangar bay in which to perform such services safely under optimum lighting, and a personnel taxi for spacecraft parking nearby.
Supporting humans in space requires a growing mix of services to keep labs busy, bring people to orbit and back, supply equipment and parts, resupply consumables, and handle wastes. These are all businesses that can be provided more effectively at less cost by for-profit enterprises, given proper incentives. Physically, the ISS is similar to Mir in being a government-built metal maze. Operationally, the ISS could host considerable entrepreneurial activity.
A favorable climate of legislation, regulation, and taxation will foster such development. Privatizing American contributions could lead the way in this international endeavor. NASA could be mandated to use commercial providers for additional modules not in the original final design of the ISS as well as for the transfer of cargoes between orbits.
The ISS could evolve into a business park. As more people live and work aboard the ISS, additional quarters will be needed for visiting scientists, policymakers, and journalists. A modular six-berth "hotel" could grow with demand. An open-door policy would welcome private individuals who had paid for or won their fares and who had passed physical and psychological tests.
Along with berth space , demand will grow for adequate recreation and relaxation "commons." A voluminous sports center, built in a shuttle external tank or large inflatable structure (sphere, cylinder, or torus), could be subsidized by naming rights and paid for by television advertising. Zero-G space soccer, handball, wrestling, ballet, and gymnastics might command respectable audiences on Earth. The first players will be regular staff, but tele-casting these events would feed the demand among would-be tourists.
As on-location service providers join the action, they too will need residential and recreational space. As the population grows, treating and recycling wastes in-orbit will become more attractive. This will help build the know-how needed for future Moon and Mars outposts.
Managing a Growing Space Business Park
The operating agency should be a marina/port authority-type entity, acting as park "developer," anticipating growth and demand. The expansion of the station's skeletal structure and power grid must be planned, along with additional piers, slips, and docking ports. Haphazard growth can lead to an early dead end!
Clustering activities—scientific, commercial, industrial, and tourist—will aim at creating a critical mass of goods and services providers, including frequently scheduled transportation. If collective station keeping proves feasible, a station-business park could expand to include co-orbiting satellite clusters, orbiting Earth in formation. Laboratories may choose to relocate to such parks for isolation from unwanted vibrations.
If microgravity experiments identify products that could be profitably mass-produced in orbit, manufacturing complexes may develop. Raw materials mined on the Moon or the asteroids could be processed at orbiting industrial parks into building materials and manufactured goods. These products will not be aimed at consumers on Earth, where they would not be able to compete on price. Instead, they will feed the construction and furnishing of ever-more orbiting labs, business parks, factories, and tourist resorts. If Earth-to-orbit transportation costs remain high, space-sourced goods could have a cost advantage for orbital markets. This need to support increasing activities in Earth orbit will in turn support mining settlements on the Moon and elsewhere.
The Mir, deactivated and then recommissioned, had taken the lead in encouraging for-profit space activities, including tourism. Unfortunately, the Russian Space Agency decided to end its operation, and the aging space station re-entered Earth's atmosphere in 2001.
Given favorable changes in climate, bursts of commercial and business activity could vitalize the ISS core complex. The ISS is now in a high-inclination Earth orbit, an orbit chosen for its ease of access as well as to allow observation of most populated landmasses on Earth. Such orbits, however, are not optimum as staging points for higher geosynchronous orbit or deep space. Rising demand for such crewed services should lead to another depot-business park in equatorial orbit . Business and tourist activities in orbit are emerging from these tiny seeds. The future for business parks in orbit is bright.
see also Commercialization (volume 1); Habitats (volume 3); Hotels (volume 4); Transhab (volume 4).
Lauer, Charles J. "Places in Space." Ad Astra 8, no. 2 (March/April 1996): 24-25.
International Space Station Congress. <http://www.isscongress.org>.
"Business Parks." Space Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/business-parks
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