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Will private funds fuel the next space race?

Victoria Craig Oct 22, 2019
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Astronauts from around the world are gathering this week at the 70th annual International Astronautical Conference. On the agenda: Celebrating five decades since the moon landing, and pondering what’s next in the private-sector space race as more money pours in from the likes of billionaire businessman Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson.

On the global edition of Marketplace Morning Report, the BBC’s Victoria Craig spoke to India’s space entrepreneur, Susmita Mohanty, who founded her country’s first space company. She said her goal is to put architecture and space together to design habitats, rovers, and spacesuits to live and work in outer space.

Susmita Mohanty speaks at the BBC’s 100 Women of 2019 event in New Delhi, India

Below is an edited version of their conversation.

Susmita Mohanty: I think for way too long, governments have had total control on access to space and space utilization. That’s starting to change. And it’s not just the billionaire Bezos and the Musks of the world. But it’s also entrepreneurs such as myself and others who are out innovating and disrupting the way things are done, the way things are designed. Where I come from, we are taking a multidisciplinary approach to designing Human Exploration Systems, as opposed the engineering-centric approach that the masses of the world have been taking for the past five decades. So, I think private players are starting to play a bigger role and it’s only going to grow from here.

Victoria Craig: The space industry is dominated by developed countries. As somebody who’s been very intimately involved in India space ambitions, what do emerging economies like India need to support more space entrepreneurship?

Mohanty: Although India is an emerging economy, it’s not an emerging space power. The Indian Space Program is almost as old as the American and the Russian space programs. We did our first experimental rocket launch in 1963. India and  China, and even Japan, are not emerging space powers. They have been around for a while, and they are in the top five spacefaring countries when it comes to technological accomplishments and budgets. Having said that, I think for entrepreneurs, a lot needs to change in India. I started my first company in San Francisco and my second company in Vienna and my third venture is out of Bangalore. So what I would want to change in India for entrepreneurs is one we need the government, as in the space agency, to see us as allies and not competitors. The other thing that we really need for India to have is a thriving funding ecosystem, which we don’t as of today, both the United States and Europe have amazing funding mechanisms for young entrepreneurs. We are advocating for that change and pushing for that change.

Craig: Do you see that change happening?

Mohanty: It’s already starting to happen. And we have a handful of space entrepreneurs in Bangalore and elsewhere, doing some cutting edge things. So I would say the ball is already gotten rolling. Remember that even in the U.S., if you look at Elon Musk or the others, most of their funding comes from government sources, Department of Defense and NASA. Skybox Imaging, a Stanford startup was the first company to raise money in Silicon Valley. So even in the U.S., it’s a recent phenomenon, private money being put into space.

Craig: Many space entrepreneurs have different visions about how humans use space, for instance, a place to seek shelter when Earth is no longer habitable. What’s your take? How do we use space and are we using it efficiently?

Mohanty: I think we are utilizing space in our everyday lives in fairly invisible ways, whether it’s telecommunications or GPS or observation. So that’s already happened in the last four to five decades. What’s going to happen in the coming decades in terms of space utilization, is we will use space more and more for experiments for manufacturing things in low Earth orbit, for tourism, and also possibly to go settle on other planetary surfaces. If you look at climate change, humans have accelerated it. And I personally believe it’s fairly irreversible at this place. Maybe four to five generations from now, the planet might not be inhabitable anymore. So, we will have to find other places to send humans. As the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky said, “Earth is the cradle of mankind, and one can’t stay in the cradle forever.”