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Boeing 702
Can a multinational organization chart a successful course for the commercial space industry? (credit: Boeing)

Can the OECD figure out commercial space?

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Money and schedule issues

The IFP operates on a membership basis: organizations and companies pay for membership in the project. Government organizations from G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US) pay a membership fee of €75,000 (US$81,000), while organizations from other nations pay €60,000 (US$64,800). Companies pay between €50,000 and 75,000 (US$54,000-81,000), depending if they want one or two seats of representation. The IFP uses those fees to pay for the project: Schieb estimated that the total cost of the project would be about $1.2 million.

These high fees have largely limited participation on the project to government agencies and large corporations. Sixteen countries are currently participating in the project, as well as multinational organizations such as the European Commission and ESA. The US is represented on the project through Lockheed Martin and NOAA. (Schieb said that both NASA and the US State Department were approached, but they decided that NOAA would provide the best representation for the US government.) Other countries are represented by a mix of large corporations (such as Astrium, SES Global, ING Bank) and government space agencies and related ministries (including CNES, CSA, and MEXT, the Japanese ministry that oversees that country’s space efforts.) There is an absence of representation by both entrepreneurial ventures and developing countries; Schieb said they would try to correct the latter by inviting Russian, Chinese, and Indian agencies to participate at no charge.

As can be expected from such a multinational bureaucracy, the IFP is in no particular rush to complete its work. After its meeting in October to select promising space applications for further study, the group will spend the next year exploring both the business and policy issues. By the end of 2004 they plan to complete the final draft of their report, including their recommendations for action, and submit it to the OECD Council for its approval. Assuming the report is approved, the OECD will publish the report by April 2005.

There is an absence of representation by both entrepreneurial ventures and developing countries, primarily because of the high membership fees.

It’s this timescale and lack of inclusiveness that should cause the most concern about the OECD’s efforts. To get the best view of the prospects for commercial space, the project needs to take into account the plans and opinions of those small entrepreneurial ventures that largely operate under the radar of established players in commercial space, but who represent technologies and markets that hold the greatest promise for the future. These companies, in general, don’t have over $50,000 lying around to participate in such ventures, and typically lack the personnel and time required to participate at the same level as large companies and government agencies. The IFP needs to reach out to these companies and solicit their input for the project’s efforts to have the best chance of success.

Meanwhile, the drawn-out schedule of the project threatens it, if not with obsolescence, then at least with being overtaken by events in some arenas. By April 2005 it’s quite possible, for example, that suborbital space tourism will be a real industry with one or more companies offering services, based on the considerable progress made by companies like Armadillo Aerospace and Scaled Composites. Broadband satellite services offered through Ka-band satellites scheduled for launch in the next two years could prove to be a major growth sector for the satellite telecommunications office, or they might prove unable to compete with entrenched terrestrial alternatives like DSL and cable. While the IFP’s 30-year planning horizon is unlikely to make the whole report irrelevant, they will have to take care to keep up with and respond to developments in the industry in the next eighteen months.

It’s too soon to tell whether the OECD’s project will help or hurt—or have any affect at all—on the future of the commercial space industry. Whatever conclusions the OECD does settle on will attract its share of attention given the prominence and influence of the organization as a whole. All the players in the commercial space industry, whether they are full dues-paying members of the IFP project or outside observers, would benefit from monitoring the project’s progress and seeing what direction they believe commercial space should take in the years to come.