The space race of the 1960s has nothing on 2022.
Sixty years ago, countries fiercely competed to see who would have the first footprints on the Moon. Today, it is private companies, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, that are not only interested in space and especially Mars, as new frontiers to conquer, but also for their market potential.
However, space tech founders have caught an onslaught of flak from the public over their desire to plow billions of dollars into space instead of using the funds to improve life on Earth.
Adam Gilmour, the CEO and co-founder of Australia-based Gilmour Space Technologies, believes that kind of criticism may just be miscommunication. His 10-year-old company builds and launches small, low-cost satellite-carrying rockets for customers focused on the space economy.
“The space industry needs to do a better job of communicating that the end user of all of the activity in space is for all the people walking around on Earth,” he says.
There are now over 10,000 private space tech-related companies worldwide, more than ever before. Morgan Stanley estimates the industry could generate more than $1 trillion in revenue by 2040, up from $350 billion or so currently, with telecom being one of the most significant drivers. Including Gilmour Space, 500 Global counts six space tech companies in its portfolio.
Driving part of that growth isn’t Mars, Gilmour says, but something less flashy — telecom.
Nearly 8,000 satellites orbit the Earth. They provide internet connectivity, help us predict the weather, and travel using real-time GPS. They also allow us to see images coming out of Ukraine, when journalists can’t report on the ground.
But the average lifespan of a low-earth-orbit satellite is short — about five to seven years, according to Gilmour. When a satellite malfunctions in space, the company can send a replacement to avoid interruption in connectivity, and do it at a lower cost. SpaceX’s Falcon 9, for example, reportedly runs upwards of $62 million per launch.
“You can put up a constellation of satellites in the initial deployment with a big rocket, but once the satellites are deployed, they have a limited lifespan and they malfunction randomly. So when you’re trying to replace a malfunctioning satellite, it’s much more economical to take them up on a small launch vehicle,” says Gilmour.
The company builds hybrid propulsion rockets. Its new Eris model is about 25 meters tall, 2 meters wide, and has a payload of up to 215 kg – lighter than many competitors. SpaceX’s Falcon 1, the company’s smallest rocket, had a payload of nearly twice the size.
Gilmour Space also uses greener fuels, which contribute to lower costs. “One of the technology choices we made many years ago to build simple and cheap rockets, was to use hybrid rocket motors,” says Gilmour.
Adam and his brother James, who heads Launch Operations, founded Gilmour Space in 2012. Both were fascinated with space from a young age, but it was Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic that sparked the idea to start a company. Adam, who studied banking and spent the early part of his career as a corporate banker, began paying attention to the business side of the industry after Virgin Galactic received a billion-dollar valuation following several space flights back in the early aughts.
“To me, that was the beginning of what I thought was going to be a move away from government-directed space efforts to commercial-directed space efforts,” says Gilmour.
He has signed partnerships with governments and companies around the world. It partnered with the Australian government as the country launched a space program to “grow a sustainable space ecosystem” and increase the number of space entrepreneurs and startups in the sector. It has an agreement with U.S.-based Momentus to provide “orbital transport services” using its Eris rocket, and next year it plans to launch a series of satellites into orbit for another private space tech company, Fleet. Gilmour Space has raised nearly US$65 million in funding, including Series A capital from 500 Global.
As desire for interconnectivity grows, Gilmour believes people will start seeing space tech more than just colonizing Mars or embarking on intergalactic travel, but as a practical solution for how we can improve our lives.
“You use space tech everyday,” he says. “Every time you take money out of the ATM, you’re using space tech. Every time you use Google Maps, you’re using space tech. Every time you look for a three-day weather forecast, you’re using space tech. It’s quite scary, because if you turned everything off in space, there would be anarchy on Earth.”
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