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The world’s space economy grew by about 10 per cent last year to more than $330bn, according to the Colorado-based Space Foundation which produces an authoritative annual report on the industry.
The foundation will publish its statistics for 2014 next month but Micah Walter-Range, director of research and analysis, gave the FT some preliminary figures from the forthcoming report.
The increase in global spending from $303bn in 2013 was driven by growth on the commercial side — particularly satellite navigation equipment and services and direct-to-home satellite television — combined with an upturn in government space budgets (which had fallen as a result of public spending cuts).
The other organisation that publishes a comprehensive independent analysis of the global space economy is the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Its most recent report, released in October, takes data up to 2013.
The figures from the OECD and Space Foundation are inevitably somewhat different, because of variations in definitions and data sources, but the two reports are broadly compatible.
According to the OECD, the space industry generated $256bn in commercial revenues (58 per cent from consumer services, 33 per cent from space manufacturing including launch services and 9 per cent from satellite operators’ services) in 2013. The OECD and Space Foundation agree that government space budgets amounted to about $75bn that year.
The US spends much the most public money on space — $41bn through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) and other agencies — though even this represents less than 0.3 per cent of GDP. France and other European countries invest less than 0.1 per cent of GDP on space.
For all the political and financial troubles it has endured over 25 years since the Soviet Union broke up, Russia remains the world’s second space power. Indeed, on some measures it is number one.
Year after year more rockets rise from Russian launch pads than from anywhere else in the world. Last year there were 92 launch attempts worldwide — up from 81 in 2013 and the highest total since 1994 — of which 32 were Russian, 23 American, 16 Chinese and 11 European. India and Japan managed four launches each.
“With only two failures, 2014 was a very successful year for the industry,” comments Mr Walter-Range.
Although the space sector remains heavily influenced by strategic and security considerations, the industry is globalising at an accelerating pace, as the OECD report points out. Even during the cold war, there was some international collaboration between geopolitical enemies — first symbolised 40 years ago when a US Apollo spacecraft carrying three astronauts docked in orbit with a Russian Soyuz and its crew of two cosmonauts.
Working out compatible rendezvous and docking systems for spacecraft developed according to quite different national standards was quite an achievement. Success led to more extensive co-operation, which came to fruition with the International Space Station.
The ISS — built in stages in low Earth orbit since 1998 at a conservatively estimated cost of $100bn — may not have caught the public imagination or yielded enough exciting scientific research to justify that level of expenditure. But as the world’s biggest international engineering project and a vehicle for global collaboration, it has been a triumph.
During the past couple of years of tension between Russia and the west over Ukraine and other issues, the ISS partnership has continued to work smoothly and cordially, maintaining a crew of six in low Earth orbit.
With the retirement of the fleet of Space Shuttles in 2011, 30 years after their first launch, the US and its partners have relied on Russian Soyuz rockets to ferry people to and from the ISS. But Nasa plans to restore America’s ability to fly crew there from late 2017; its Commercial Crew Program has ordered manned spacecraft from Boeing (the CST-100 vehicle) and SpaceX (Crew Dragon).
Interdependency of manufacturers was illustrated in the OECD report by a survey of US space companies that showed they had critical suppliers of materials, structures, mechanical and communications systems and electronic equipment in 56 countries. US manufacturers often procure Russian hardware, particularly propulsion systems that are integrated into American rockets and satellites.
As the OECD also notes, scientific and technological innovations are leading to a “democratisation” of space, as every component of a spacecraft becomes smaller and less expensive. Small satellites built with commercial, off-the-shelf parts are becoming fashionable for a wide range of scientific, communications and remote sensing applications (see SSTL case study) while micro- and nano-satellites provide even cheaper options.
Cubesats — cubes with 10cm sides, a volume of one litre and a weight of less than 1kg — are very popular technology demonstrators for universities and small companies. They are being sent into low Earth orbit at a rate of more than 100 a year, as secondary payloads piggybacking on the launch of larger satellites.
The Space Foundation also highlights “the increasing accessibility and desirability of space”, and says: “It is clear that space is no longer the domain of a select few — space is for everyone.”