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Review: Emerging Space Markets

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Emerging Space Markets
by Stella Tkatchova
Springer, 2018
hardcover, 139 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-3-662-55667-2

The Trump Administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request is due out today, and it’s expected to include language calling for an end of NASA funding of the International Space Station in 2025. However, that proposal isn’t meant to abandon the ISS or operations in low Earth orbit: it also includes funding to develop commercial successors to the ISS, perhaps using elements of the ISS itself, that can be leased by NASA and other customers. It’s a proposal likely to be embraced by companies already planning commercial space stations, but staunchly opposed by current station users and their backers in Congress.

It’s just one sign of many, though, of the growing roles for commercial actors in low Earth orbit and beyond. Last week’s successful launch of the Falcon Heavy opened the doors to both the launch of heavy payloads at competitive prices as well as commercial missions beyond Earth orbit (even though SpaceX appears to be deferring such missions to its next-generation BFR system.) Dozens of ventures are pursuing small launch vehicles, seeking to serve the growing number of small satellite developers.

While the premise of Emerging Space Markets is useful, the execution is not.

In this environment, a guide that provides an overview of the various commercial space markets and their key players would be useful. Emerging Space Markets by Stella Tkatchova attempts to be that guide, offering a concise review of the history and prospects of those markets. Unfortunately, the short and overpriced book falls short of what readers should expect.

Tkatchova divides emerging space markets into four categories: interplanetary spaceflight, commercial space stations in low Earth orbit, suborbital spaceflight, and spaceports. The exclusion of geostationary orbit makes sense, since that’s hardly an emerging market given the decades of communications satellites there, but the megaconstellations of satellites planned for LEO by OneWeb, SpaceX, and others get far less attention, as do constellations of small Earth observation satellites by companies like Planet.

The discussion of those various sectors is uneven, at best. The chapter on interplanetary spaceflight features a list of stakeholders for such missions that includes defunct entities like Golden Spike and “Inspiration to [sic] Mars” as well as Mars One, whose delays and unconventional business plan have prompted significant skepticism. Yet the table doesn’t include SpaceX, whose plans are arguably far more advanced than those other ventures for missions to Mars or even the Moon.

There are leaps of logic elsewhere in the book. In the chapter on commercial space stations, Tkatchova discusses several of the companies working on such concepts, including Axiom Space and Bigelow Aerospace. In the one paragraph about Axiom, she claims the company’s initial module “will probably be from Bigelow inflatable Xbase station,” a claim without any citation and one that doesn’t appear to align with the company’s published plans. In a chapter on spaceports, she writes that because existing FAA licenses for US commercial spaceports were set to expire between 2016 and 2020, “sub-orbital companies using the spaceports above will be exposed to the pressure to launch and initiate successful operations by the end of the license expiry.” Spaceport licenses, of course, can be renewed and have been multiple times.

There are other passages in need of editing (the “end of the license expiry” is just one example) and others where the author seemed to be conflating completely separate items. A section on “Worldwide Space Act Agreements” discusses NASA’s funded and unfunded Space Act Agreements with private companies, but also discusses national space legislation—space acts, if you will—in other nations. “In Europe Sweden has set up a Space Act Agreement that establishes the regulatory regime of having licenses for carrying space activities from Swedish territory,” she writes. Such laws are very different from NASA’s Space Act Agreements, and including them in the same section suggests a lack of understanding by the author or a major editing error.

In short, while the premise of Emerging Space Markets is useful, the execution is not, and it is certainly not worth the price charged by the publisher. A critical guide examining emerging space markets, including what has worked and what has not (suborbital space tourism, for example, has been right around the corner for more than a decade), would be a useful resource for those in industry and government. Unfortunately, that is not this book.