The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Genesis 1 image
The key to the success of space transportation may be the ability for it to serve new destinations, such as Bigelow Aerospace’s planned orbital habitats. (credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Past futures

Let’s start with a puzzle: What is the link between Juan Terry Trippe, Hawaii, Arthur C. Clarke, and Elvis?

The answer to that riddle helps us as we try to solve the great mystery surrounding the new space industry: how are the pioneers going to make money? Figuring out where the opportunities lie for a new-to-the-world product or service demands that we adopt a different way of looking into the future. Perhaps we might find some signposts to tomorrow by studying how the future unfolded after past innovations first appeared on the scene. But first, Elvis has entered the building!

Thirty years or so after the Wright brothers’ triumph, Pan American Airways’ founder, Juan Trippe, opened up trans-Pacific routes for mail and passenger services. One of the beneficiaries was Hawaii. At first, only the well-heeled could afford the glamour of a clipper ship flight—around $10,000 in today’s money. Trippe later urged Boeing to build the 707 and then the 747 which made air travel affordable for a mass market (Trippe also introduced tourist class). Now add Arthur C. Clarke’s idea that orbiting satellites could be used for communication which led to satellite TV transmissions. Then throw some show business into the mix. In 1973, Elvis Presley gave two sell-out shows in Hawaii. The second event was broadcast live via satellite—the first such transmission. It was seen by at least one billion viewers worldwide—then, a quarter of the world’s population. Hawaii was now on the tourists’ map.

…we try to solve the great mystery surrounding the new space industry: how are the pioneers going to make money?

There are several interconnected elements at play: the development of long-range aircraft that could reach inaccessible places, the development of satellite-based communication, the worldwide market for entertainment, and the influence of television on people’s choice of leisure pursuits and vacation destinations. Until a reliable, available, attractively-priced air service opened up the islands to all, Hawaii might have remained a place for pineapple growers. If we now substitute “spacecraft” for “aircraft”, what would that lead us to think about the future for space? Will someone inspire the construction of an equivalent to the 707 or 747 that can carry hundreds of passengers or large payloads into space? What might complement the new industry in the way that satellites did and cause it to pass the point at which explosive growth occurs: what are NASA, DARPA, and the kid in the garage working on? Can we recreate the Elvis phenomenon with a concert aboard a Bigelow space station? How about the Rolling Stones’ farewell tour from space or a weightless Woodstock? Would such events inspire more people to go into space or to invest in the industry?

Pan Am also operated a large ship that sailed across the Pacific carrying materials and equipment, even whole villages, necessary for constructing airport facilities on the islands dotted along the routes the planes would fly. Will someone develop a similar asset for use in space?

Satellites, rock ’n’ roll, and the allure of an exotic destination combined to bring people to Hawaii by plane. If we had a state-of-the-art crystal ball on the beach at Kitty Hawk we might have seen this future. We would have spotted opportunities to invest in building planes, in the travel industry, or we might have bought land in Hawaii and started putting up hotels knowing the guests would arrive—any option would have made us a fortune!

Ripples on the pond

Every new situation we face has some parallel in our past from which we can learn. By studying a previous innovation we can see how its future unfolded. The moment of innovation is like a stone tossed into a pond: the future develops like the ripples that spread across the water creating many opportunities. Studying past futures can lead us to clues about the space industry’s tomorrow.

As we ponder the new space endeavors, we can see an obvious parallel with the development of aviation. However, suppose you had been at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and just witnessed the first flight—an event without precedent. What possible analogy could you have used back then to figure out what might come next? In that case, you would have observed the birth of a new method of travel so you might choose to study how previous revolutions in transport developed over the years following their introduction to help you imagine the potential of this new-fangled airplane.

You could, for example, study the horse, or even the camel or elephant. These animals were domesticated and came to serve three vital functions: as personal transport (people could travel much further in a given time period than on foot); as pack or draught animals (carrying more weight than a human, pulling a cart loaded with freight, or a carriage with several passengers); or as military assets (medieval warhorses or hauling guns). The first two functions revolutionized travel, trade, and the speedier dissemination of information (it was Paul Revere’s ride that spread the news, not his leisurely stroll!) while new levels of mobility leading to new strategies were introduced into warfighting.

Revolutions in transport enabled people to reach new destinations. We need a destination in space, too.

You might dig deeper and discover how the future that emerged after the domestication of the horse was repeated when oceangoing sailing ships were developed as well as steamboats, steam locomotives, and the automobile. They all delivered new levels of mobility and opened up access to previously remote areas. You could follow the transport analogies to begin imagining that aircraft might also serve to extend the reach of the three basic functions: transport for people, for payloads, and for military purposes. The need to build an infrastructure to support this new mode of transport would also become more obvious. If this analogy could reveal the future of aviation in 1903, can it do the same for the space industry in 2007?

Revolutions in transport enabled people to reach new destinations. We need a destination in space, too. Arguably, Robert Bigelow is the most important entrepreneur today since he is creating destinations with his Genesis inflatable habitats. Without these space platforms, we would be left with suborbital hops, or a couple of orbits, but there would be no honeymoon hotel, concert venue, science laboratory, or factory. And will someone decide to make money cleaning the toilets or delivering room service?

Tipping points

When we study past futures, we should be able to identify the time when things took off—the tipping point—and why this happened. This is the history of RAP: the moment when a product or service becomes Reliable, readily and conveniently Available, at an attractive Price. Until all three are present the innovation will languish and mass markets will not appear. For example, Atlas and Delta rockets are reliable, available (more or less), but the price to fly a payload is beyond any but government customers or the largest corporations. For space tourism, reliability is a given and all the pioneers are dedicated to lowering the ticket price, but availability may be the critical limiting factor, at least until there are spaceports around the world. The travel industry will be a vital partner and must learn how to sell the experience. Strategically, the most important early fliers might be travel agents!

Occasionally, true genius comes along: the people who toss a stone in the pond and start the ripples spreading out for others to watch—the Wright Brothers, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and now, Burt Rutan, who made the private enterprise space industry a tangible reality. Their innovations inspire other great entrepreneurs who spot both the opportunities and threats being created. Sam Walton saw the growth of car-enabled suburbs. He sited new stores in a ring round a town and waited for the subdivisions to spread out. When they did, there was Wal-Mart, ready and waiting. Sam’s competitors missed that ripple and stayed in the now-empty city centers. W.H. “Boss” Hoover believed the automobile would replace the horse and kill off his business making leather accessories for horse-drawn carriages. He bought the patent for a suction-sweeper invented by his brother-in-law and started manufacturing it. Watching the ongoing ripples from the invention of the automobile enabled Walton to spot an opportunity and Hoover to respond to a threat. Who will win or lose as space access becomes routine and affordable? Will Marriott build orbiting hotels? Will terrestrial adventure holiday companies go out of business?

As we follow the outer ripples on the pond caused by past innovations we can see how other fascinating opportunities emerged. The high-pressure steam engine developed by Oliver Evans revolutionized the performance of steamboats and, later, factory power plants. The railroads developed in parallel with the telegraph making real-time communication across thousands of kilometers the norm. They were also instrumental in the introduction of standard time and time zones in order to manage their far-flung operations. Furthermore, the railroads were a seminal force in the introduction of modern management: the Pennsylvania Railroad was, arguably, the world’s first company to become globally renowned for its management expertise rather than its product. What further innovations will the new space industry introduce? We can approach this puzzle by asking the question: If this exists, then what else might occur or be needed? For example, as you read this, is someone following in Evans’ footsteps and dreaming up a new propulsion system that will revolutionize the speed and range of spacecraft and may have significant terrestrial applications? Will a modern-day Samuel Morse develop technologies to eliminate the time delay in Earth-Mars communication? And will we need a new way to set and measure time? What management challenges will asteroid-mining companies have to face?

These later effects are hard to see when the ripples first start to spread. However, studying past futures helps us to visualize what might come next. We can venture out to the pond’s margin to consider the tantalizing nth ripple and ask questions such as: “Once horses were taught to pull wagons, the wheelwrights became pretty important. What will be the must-have crafts or trades in space, and who will provide them?”

Occasionally, true genius comes along: the people who toss a stone in the pond and start the ripples spreading out for others to watch.

Space is infinite and so is human imagination. Studying past futures starts our imaginative juices flowing by bringing to light not only the stories of those who achieved success in the core industry, but also reminds us how entrepreneurs from other fields spotted rich opportunities. We can even allow ourselves to dwell on the furthest ripples: Will the Rocket Racing League take a leaf out of the long-distance yacht racing book and plan an annual Earth-Moon endurance contest? Will an R&D engineer at Otis begin to take an interest in the space elevator concept? How about an international school on the Moon to engage young people in space exploration and the sciences?

There are more opportunities in space than we have yet imagined. But keep thinking, for as Walt Disney said: “If we can dream it, we can do it.”