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The Future of the Space Economy – A 2021 Update

The Space Shuttle taking off into space, where it belongs

Despite the pandemic, the past year has been a busy one for NASA and the space program. The Perseverance Rover landed on Mars and will be conducted a variety of tests. SpaceX successfully completed a crewed mission to the International Space Station. And coming later this summer, NASA will launch its Double Asteroid Redirection Test, designed to redirect incoming asteroids. These achievements demonstrate that COVID did little overall to slow down the momentum of new space developments. If anything, they seem to be ramping up.

These new space developments also align well with NASA’s ongoing investments into innovations. Its small business innovation research program, or SBIR, awards over $3 billion annually to small businesses with grand ideas. These grants help fuel advances that might not otherwise occur. In addition, the recipients provide good insights about where the future of the “Space Economy” might be heading. Based on this year’s awards, it certainly appears that NASA’s agenda is a rather broad one. (Dig deeper into the concept of the Space Economy in this Bold story.)

“NASA SBIR/STTR interfaces with entrepreneurs pushing the boundaries of innovation. We’re proud to partner with a diverse group of innovators and expand the reach of NASA across the country.” – Jason L. Kessler, Program Executive of NASA’s SBIR Program

Space Services, Assembly, and Manufacturing (SAM)

A notable area where advances will be made with the future of the space economy involves space SAM. Several companies are engaged in these areas of innovation and account for a number of new space developments. For example, Elementum 3D hopes to leverage new additive manufacturing techniques to scale in-space manufacturing of propulsion systems. Others are exploring the use of ultrasonic additive manufacturing involving 3D printing and welding. And Martian Sky Technologies plans to introduce a system designed to remove space clutter from low Earth orbits. This latter service will be particularly important as more satellites are introduced to support the Internet-of-Things. These new space developments highlight how NASA wants to move on-Earth services and manufacturing into space to reduce cargo loads. In doing so, they open the door for transport of other materials and potentially passengers.

Propulsion and Energy Systems

Naturally, NASA would be interested in new space developments related to propulsion and energy systems. The more efficient and effective such systems are, the greater the opportunities for the future of the space economy. In this regard, some SBIR grants are supporting advances in electric propulsion systems. While these are difficult to make to scale on-Earth and transport, in-space production may be feasible. Specifically, Hall Effect thrusters created in space could offer much greater efficiency and power with larger size. Other new space developments in this area have to do with stored energy and battery innovations. For example, Talos Tech and the University of Delaware are exploring atmospheric carbon dioxide as a battery reactant. If successful, these batteries could better tolerate extreme heats and allow broader space exploration.

“The future of space is beyond an exclusive focus on technology and science, and the sector will play in important role in boosting economic growth and accelerating sustainable development.” – Yves Pitsch, Principal Program Manager, Azure Networking

Someone flaunting their NASA phone case
When it comes to the future of the Space Economy, you just know that NASA and rocket propulsion are like peanut butter and jelly.

Space Construction and Robotics

While new space developments in services and manufacturing will be important, so will space construction. The future of the space economy will require many items to be created in place rather than being shuttled from Earth. One such item involves a space launch pad, which NASA hopes to have on the moon. Several companies, such as Exploration Architecture, are pursuing construction systems designed to create bricks for this purpose. Using lunar dust as a resource, this company hopes to make moon bricks, known as regolith bricks. The process requires melting the lunar dust and then baking it into form. The future of the space economy will also demand robotics in a variety of areas. On-Earth advances in robotics are moving at a rapid pace already, but so are those in space as well. (Read more about the advances in robotics 2020 brought in this Bold story.) These range from companies like Astrobotic advance lidar for space vehicles to TRAC Labs actual space robots themselves. These are probably the least surprising new space developments that NASA has planned.

Other New Space Developments

One thing is for certain…the future of the space economy is diverse in its scope. In addition to construction, SAM, and energy systems, many other areas must be developed in space. One notable area of interest involves agriculture in space. Being able to produce foodstuffs in space eliminates cargo while also inviting new production opportunities. Once company interested in this is Bloomfield Robotics, which plans to advance its Controlled Environment Agriculture. Experimenting with microgravity environments, the company is combining deep learning systems with multispectral plant imaging. Ultimately, they hope to scale agricultural production as part of the new space developments. The future of the space economy is also constantly exploring new ways to make things smaller and lighter. Believe it or not, this even applies to radio devices and signals. Intellisense is one company looking to use neuromorphic computing to simplify and shrink radio stacks in this regard.

“Most industry experts and commentators feel that with new services introduced by satellites and innovative applications, a huge market will open up in both the government and business sectors.” – Devleena Bhattacharji, CEO of Numer8, an Indian startup specializing in satellite- based maritime services

The Race for Space

Given the amount of grant dollars awarded to these up-and-coming businesses, it’s clear NASA is investing in innovation. The future of the space economy looks to be alive and well as a result. New space developments are occurring at a rapid pace involving numerous areas. Likewise, NASA’s investments demonstrate its renewed interests in private-public partnerships to create strategic advantages. With these investments, the U.S. can play a major role in ushering in the future of the space economy. And through business innovations, this future has the potential to look quite bright.


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