For all of the time they've been on earth, humans have looked up and wondered what was out there. Now more than ever, as a recent panel of experts discussed, humans are equipped to find out.
“We actually have, for the very first time, not just the ability to answer those questions, but to be able to go and live among the stars,” says Douglas Terrier, associate director for vision and strategy at NASA's Johnson Space Center. “It’s really a phenomenal thing to think that we are existing at this time.”
Terrier was joined by fellow panelists Matt Ondler, CTO of Axiom Space, and Tim Crain, CTO of Intuitive Machines, along with moderator Arturo Machuca, director of Houston Spaceport, to explore what has contributed to this unique moment in time for space commercialization. The panel, which was presented by Houston Spaceport and hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership, took place at Houston House at SXSW on Sunday, March 13.
An industry that was run exclusively by the government has evolved to include commercialization — and not just on a corporate level.
“We’re at this inflection point where access to space is easier — companies are emerging and it’s not just NASA and big companies like Boeing and Lockheed that can participate in space,” Ondler says.
This evolution was crucial to continue developing the technologies needed to advance the industry. Ondler's company Axiom Space is working on the first commercial space station for lower earth orbit, or LEO. This project will be 100 to 1,000 times less expensive than what it cost to build the International Space Station.
“We’re really leveraging so much history and so much of the government’s investment to build our commercial space station,” Ondler says.
The LEO economy is a trillion dollar economy — and one that has been overtaken by commercial companies, which is exactly what NASA needed to allow for it to refocus efforts to returning to the moon with its Artemis project.
“We’ve gotten over that first obstacle where we’ve commercialized operations of low earth orbit,” Terrier says. “That frees us up to look further.”
For decades, the aerospace industry has been responsible for churning out technologies that, in addition to their space application, can make a difference on earth as well.
“We spend a lot of money getting to space, but what it does is push forward all of these things we have to invent, and they find their ways into application in medicine, water purification, clean energy — all return tenfold value to our society," Terrier says on the panel.
Today, Terrier says the space economy is over $400 billion — and only a quarter of that is government investment. With this influx of companies working in space innovation, Houston has all it needs to be a leader in the field.
“Innovation and the ability to commercially engage in space requires a lot of ideas and new ways of looking of things,” Crain says, pointing out the area around the JSC and the spaceport. “The more opportunities we have for these ideas to come together and interchange, that is going to open up the capability to make commercialization successful.”
He continues saying the city is building a critical mass with space tech startups, talent within engineering and manufacturing, government support, and more.
“It’s more open now than it's ever been for both the city and for NASA to support companies who want to work in Houston,” Crain says. “When you put all those ingredients together the opportunities are really endless, and it’s the place to be.”