This article originally appeared in Rule Breakers on Feb 18, 2015, as part of their ongoing Innovation and Industries feature. A link for a free trial to Rule Breakers (along with a special report about a new technology disrupting cable TV) is included at the bottom of this page.
One thing I love about Rule Breakers is that we get to look at some real cutting-edge stuff. Our recent innovation features on virtual reality, personalized medicine, and the Internet of Things were all two steps ahead in identifying the next big thing in a variety of industries.
I'm especially excited about this month, as we're looking at a field truly on the fringe of everything we know as a human civilization: space travel.
Explorers of what lies beyond the Earth's atmosphere are among the most famous of our recorded history. Ptolemy's second-century Planetary Hypotheses was the first to describe the night sky as "nested spheres" of other stars and planets. Galileo's confirmation in 1610 that the Earth actually revolved around the sun was initially denounced by the church as heresy. And Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon drew an estimated half a billion viewers -- at the time, the largest television audience that had ever tuned in for a single event.
The allure of space has also provided us with entertainment value for decades. Try finding anyone in the U.S. over 30 who hasn't heard of Star Trek or Star Wars.
Still, investors haven't really paid that much attention to outer space. It's always been too expensive, with only developed governments able to afford the multibillion-dollar tab for each mission.
But now, decades of government-funded research has drastically diminished the costs of technology. Many businesses can now afford to make an economic profit from the space race. Space is finally becoming commercially viable.
Prepare for the ride, Breakers. In this month's feature, we're taking a closer look at outer space from four different perspectives: rockets, satellites, tourism, and exploration.
NASA's heyday really came in the late 1960s. The organization accounted for upward of 4% of the U.S. federal budget and was spending nearly $40 billion a year (in today's dollars). Since then, budget cuts have pulled funding back a bit. NASA today accounts for about $18 billion a year and 0.5% of the federal budget, and the organization continues to decentralize. This has allowed private companies to bid for payload missions and participate much more in the overall space program.
Many of the first companies to join the race were led by billionaire entrepreneurs who were fascinated with space and looking to find ways to reduce the costs of launch. Elon Musk is the co-founder and CEO of SpaceX, which is making reusable rockets that can launch and land in the same place and position. Even as a privately held company, SpaceX is making huge strides. It's under contract with NASA to bring payloads to the International Space Station for at least 12 missions (which you can even watch live on NASA TV).
Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos is another space-obsessed entrepreneur, founding Blue Origin in 2000. Blue Origin also aims to make reusable rockets, taking a step-by-step approach to systematically reduce costs and improve reliability of launches. Others, such as Rule Breakers recommendation Orbital ATK (NYSE:OA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), are publicly traded companies that provide components to NASA. Orbital and Lockheed both supply parts for NASA's Orion spacecraft, which flew its maiden voyage in December 2014. NASA plans to launch a manned mission by 2021.
The task of reducing launch costs used to be formally controlled by government research dollars, but it is increasingly falling into the hands of the private sector. We'll be watching for companies that are making moonshots a little more efficient and affordable.
Satellites and data collection
Generally, satellites in outer space function in ways that are based upon their altitude classification:
- Low-Earth orbit (under 2,000 kilometers) satellites take ultra high-definition pictures of our planet. Rule Breakers recommendation DigitalGlobe (NYSE:DGI) or Google's (NASDAQ:GOOGL) (NASDAQ:GOOG) recent acquisition Skybox are examples of companies operating in this space.
- Medium-Earth orbit (2,000 kilometers to 36,000 kilometers) satellites assist in navigation and communications. For example, Garmin (NASDAQ:GRMN) has GPS satellites to help you negotiate your surroundings.
- Geosynchronous orbit (above than 36,000 kilometers) has satellites from Sirius XM (NASDAQ:SIRI) that broadcast radio stations directly to your vehicle. Sirius already owns the spectrum for these stations and has its satellite radios pre-installed in 70% of new vehicles produced today. It's quite possible the company could leverage this to transfer other information (such as location-based search or directions) as cars become more autonomous. With a whole lot of space out there to be monitored and studied, geosynchronous orbit has the greatest long-term opportunity.
Satellites are incredibly expensive, often costing hundreds of millions of dollars to build and additional hundreds of millions to launch. And once they're up there, they're up there. It's unlikely that operators will ever see their satellites again in person after launch, and it's incredibly difficult to fix them if anything goes wrong. This presents a huge commercial opportunity for companies that can reliably monitor and simulate outer space conditions to help protect these expensive capital investments.
That said, the up-front work and the cost of launching satellites is well worth it. Similar to what American Tower (NYSE:AMT) has done with cell phone towers on the ground, satellites can provide decades of recurring revenue. Smaller upstart companies often don't have billions of dollars lying around to build and launch their own satellites, so the competitive moats of the companies that do tend to be fairly strong.
Tourism and transportation
As incredible as this may sound, private citizens are already booking flights into outer space. Nearly 700 passengers, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Lady Gaga, have shelled out $250,000 apiece for the opportunity to see the planet from beyond our atmosphere. These commercial space flights from Virgin Galactic are set to begin later this year.
Virgin's program could have serious implications for commercial transportation. Trips taken aboard Virgin's spacecraft -- which jump into the Earth's orbital level and reach three times the speed of sound -- could be used for international flights as well (don't miss out on a window seat for that one). A flight from London to Sydney is estimated to take only two hours. It's not quite teleportation, but it's a start.
Space Adventures is upping the ante even farther. The Vienna, Virginia-based company is already booking space tours for private citizens. Today, thrill seekers can ride aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. In the near future, Space Adventures plans to send tourists on private spacewalks, and eventually even take them on trips to the moon! Save your pennies, tickets reportedly run up to $30 million apiece.
Traveling to outer space today might seem for many to be too expensive -- or too terrifying. But we'll watch for the costs and the anxiety to both drop in the coming years.
Early explorers of "the new world" largely did so either to seek an economic profit or to settle a new colony. Several of the same basic motivations are now attracting us to other new worlds.
Elon Musk has an ambitious plan to send 80,000 people to Mars in the next 12 years. Total Recall fans might hesitate, but the idea of being part of the first wave of humans to colonize another planet is certainly intriguing. (I've already promised my wife I wouldn't go.)
Building a civilization from the ground up could certainly make use of several Rule-Breaking technologies. Just think of the potential for Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS), which has already 3D printed parts for the Mars Rover. Or, SolarCity's (NASDAQ:SCTY.DL) solar panels could produce renewable power, which could be stored using Tesla's (NASDAQ:TSLA) battery packs.
Other companies have an interest in mining asteroids. Planetary Resources, which has the same co-founder as Space Adventures, is dedicated to mining rare metals and the components of rocket fuel from asteroids. This would keep spacecraft from needing to land and relaunch from Earth, which could extend their cosmic reach even farther from our planet.
The Foolish takeaway
We've highlighted four lucrative markets in outer space that are likely to develop rapidly in the coming years, but the possibilities hardly end there. Plenty of other business models that have worked on Earth could also work well in space. Real estate, transportation, and telecommunications are a few that immediately come to mind.
Research from the Space Foundation in Colorado Springs estimates the global space economy reached $314 billion in 2013, with three-quarters of that coming from the private sector. With the costs falling further and opportunities that are literally universal, entrepreneurship will be the name of the game for space going forward. Stay tuned, Fools: We'll be keeping our eyes on the skies for some new Rule Breakers.