Startups Slated to Dominate Innovation Landscape Amid Earth-Moon “Space Highway” Expansion

By Gabe Mounce, Director, Space Force Accelerators

Gas stations in space are closer than we think. For that matter, so are space tow trucks, space internet, space license plates and manufacturing in space.   

The rise of the U.S. Space Force has dominated 2020 news with space technology making huge advancements amid a growing awareness that the greatest contributions to future growth are likely to be led by the commercial sector – and startups in particular. 

A lot has changed over the last decade. As The Verge reported at the end of 2019, there’s been a paradigm shift in the business of space since SpaceX sent Dragon, a small, tear-drop-shaped cargo capsule to the International Space Station, back in 2012. 

Dragon was on a seemingly innocuous resupply mission. But the implications of its arrival were huge: it was the first time such a mission had been undertaken by a private company. And the fact that it was executed by what at the time was an industry upstart was equally significant.  

Since then – though no one has quite replicated the commercial success of Tesla just yet – startups have begun to reshape the government innovation landscape in the space domain. “Commercial companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have taken up the work historically done by nations, and they’re doing a good—and cheaper—job of it,” notes The Atlantic.  

Startups are typically small – at least in the beginning. (No one would argue that Tesla and Blue Origin are still “startups”). And they are making their size work in their favor. So is the government. 

Their size makes them more agile and accessible than traditional defense contractors, giving them greater opportunity, under the right circumstances, to be both more responsive and easily adaptive to government needs, and to foster a more direct and personal connection with prospective government partners. All of which enables faster, better collaboration. 

During the most recent Hyperspace Challenge, at the end of 2020, this was exemplified in work done by this year’s cohort participants, which were tasked with demonstrating how their technology could support the government’s growing need for autonomous solutions in space

These companies excelled at partnering with government scientists in a meaningful way to iterate their technology, from identifying and repairing space vehicles to detecting system failures in advance.

And the close relationships they developed while collaborating are likely to pay long-term dividends. As one cohort alumni recently noted, “Almost every contact we’ve established within the Department of Defense over the past two years can be traced back to our work with Hyperspace Challenge.”

The Hyperspace Challenge is just one example of a new breed of accelerators designed by the government to specifically forge these new bonds.

The timing could not be better; we are at a critical inflection point in extraterrestrial development. 

As commercial capabilities expand amid the decreasing costs of technology, Col. Eric Felt, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate, recently explained that space traffic is now poised to skyrocket. He predicts that the United States will soon have hundreds, if not thousands, of satellites in orbit, instead of dozens.

Meanwhile, resources on the moon, including the discovery of water there earlier this year, means development may not be too far behind. The government will likely need to play a growing national security role in facilitating a secure earth-to-moon “space highway” so that commercial entities can continue to innovate freely and safely in space.

The next 12 to 18 months will undoubtedly yield an advance in the sophistication of autonomous robotics that enable satellites to grapple and maneuver around each other. Not too long thereafter we are likely to see satellites provide the moon with GPS and Internet networking. This, in turn, would pave the way for a lunar military base that could include its own launch capabilities, and would likely require long-term staffing, sparking a nascent space economy. 

The coming decade will see more advancements in space that at any other point in human history, and startups are positioned to play a tremendous role in these advances. 

Increasing startup-government collaboration now is critical to fueling this momentum as we undertake the development of this new frontier.