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U.S. space economy set to blast off in 2019

Molly Wood Jan 2, 2019
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Virgin Galactic's SpaceshipTwo takes off for a suborbital test flight of the VSS Unity on December 13, 2018, in Mojave, California. 
GENE BLEVINS/AFP/Getty Images

All this week we’re looking ahead to 2019 and what’s likely to be big in business and technology. This year, expect the space economy to really take off. According to Space Angels, an investment firm specializing in aerospace, private investment in space-related businesses has jumped from a handful of companies and a couple hundred million dollars in 2009 to 375 companies and $15 billion today. The Trump administration is making space a huge economic priority, as well as a military one. Last month, a new U.S. Space Command was created to oversee and organize the country’s space-based operations. Molly Wood talked with Kimberly Adams, a senior reporter at Marketplace and our resident space expert. Adams said all these moves are part of an international race to space that’s fueled by money. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kimberly Adams: I think we’re going to see a lot more push to organize regulations to put more of the authority under the Commerce Department. The [Federal Aviation Administration] is talking about maybe allowing some launches potentially from airports and things like that, just to make better use of what resources and facilities are out there to get more companies up in space more quickly.

Molly Wood: Right. So everything is going faster. I assume that is related to the fact that the United States is not the only country pushing hard to get up into space and start making money up there, right?

Adams: Exactly, and I think that’s going to be one of the other big themes in 2019 is this global competition to make money in space. So China is a major player in this, and they are moving like gangbusters to try to get more launches going and to really build out their space industry. You see India getting involved. The European Union has been involved for a really long time — I think there’s going to be more effort there. And that means, in addition to the United States kind of streamlining its own regulations, there’s going to have to be more global cooperation in terms of how the economics of space are going to work.

Wood: You’re seeing the U.S., and certainly in the past few months, really embrace the idea of public-private partnerships as the way maybe to cut some of that red tape and start moving faster. What do you think about that approach, and how does it compare to some of those other countries and how they’re getting it done?

Adams: I think there’s a really stark difference — and this is something that’s actually been highlighted by the Trump administration on a couple of different occasions — that back in the day, space activities, research, investment was from the U.S. government, for government purposes. And now it’s really shifted to the private sector in terms of where the funding is coming from and also in terms of where the returns are going. These aren’t companies that are going out into space just for the joy of the research, although that’s part of it. These are companies that see a real economic interest in making money by taking other people’s research up to space by launching communications satellites, by launching government satellites. It’s an economic proposition for them.

Correction (Jan. 2, 2019): A previous version of this story misstated when the U.S. Space Command was created. The text has been corrected.

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