A Netscape moment for the commercial space industry?
by Michael Mealling
The commercial space industry has seen some interesting developments over the past weeks. Statements last week by members of President Obamaâ€™s human spaceflight review committee (The Augustine Commission) suggest that commercial providers may be taking a significant role in how NASA accesses low Earth orbit and how missions beyond low Earth orbit use orbiting â€œgas stationsâ€. At the same time, two commercial space companies, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, have received significant investments from well known funds (more on that below), suggesting that capital markets see a fundable new industry developing.
Some of these developments are reminiscent of the Internet industry in the early 90s. Prior to 1993, the National Science Foundation ran the Internet as an exclusive tool for university and government research (commercial speech was completely banned from the Internet prior to 1991). The NSF then decided to turn over the operation of the Internet to the private sector. Just two years later, Netscapeâ€™s IPO set records for first day gains. Despite the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, the Internet industry has been one of the largest economic drivers of the last 15 years.
The suggestions coming from the Augustine Commission are somewhat reminiscent of NSFâ€™s decision. By relinquishing its domination of low Earth orbit and partnering with commercial providers for beyond low Earth orbit infrastructure, NASA can better accomplish its exploration goals and foster a whole new industry. While we wonâ€™t see a space startup in every garage the way we did with Internet startups, the returns for using and developing space resources can be very interesting.
Read the full op-ed.