Low-Earth Orbit offers out-of-this-world commercialization opportunity
Rocket reusability key to commercializing space faster, more cost-effectively

This week in Washington, D.C., engineers, researchers, policymakers and entrepreneurs gathered to discuss the small steps being taken with public-private space initiatives that are leading to giant leaps in commercialization opportunities.

The International Space Station Research & Development Conference (#ISSRDC) drew in more than 1,000 people who came to network and hear from leading thinkers including SpaceX CEO and founder, Elon Musk; NASA astronaut and molecular biologist, Kate Rubins; Bigelow Aerospace president Robert T. Bigelow and more.

While the conversation covered a variety of subjects, the two standout discussions centered on low-Earth orbit commercialization (LEO) opportunities and rocket reusability.

The LEO opportunity

A low Earth orbit is an orbit around Earth with an altitude between the Earth’s surface and 2,000 km (1,200 mi). The International Space Station (ISS) conducts operations in LEO, and most human spaceflights have taken place in LEO or below.

If ever a risk-taking investor were looking for opportunity, LEO is where it’s at right now, as NASA is contracted to ISS operations through 2024 and private companies are being encouraged to leverage it as a base station to pursue new opportunity, technology or even new LEO facilities.

And there is no shortage of companies wanting a piece of the space pie, including Tupperware (yes, the container company that keeps your lunch fresh) who has been engineering products for use on the ISS since 2005.

How big is the opportunity? Wired reports the global space commerce industry is worth $330 billion a year, with commercial activities making up more than 75 percent of that total value.

Furthermore, last month the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act was introduced, shifting the oversight of commercial space activities from the Federal Aviation Administration to the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce. The move is expected to “democratize access to space” by letting private companies use the International Space Station as a hub of innovation from which its successors will emerge in LEO.

Entrepreneurship and private industry are driving forces with LEO commercialization, and much of the conversation at #ISSRDC focused on the need for the U.S. government to embrace and support young people and the growing space startup industry.

Private industry’s drive for profit-driven commercial initiatives will help propel the industry forward faster than government-run programs.

Reusability is key

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk cut to the chase when it came time to share his perspective on what is needed to accelerate commercial space efforts:

And SpaceX made history in March in this area.

The cost of launches will continue to fall as long as rockets can be reused, along with reducing turnaround time and allowing for more launches.

SpaceX is currently a driving force with rocket reusability and Musk said much of the company’s revenue goes back into R&D. Once more commonplace, reused rockets will be launched for half the cost of new ones, Musk said.