Space and innovation: the next frontier

Claire Jolly, Head of the OECD Space Forum is the co-author of today’s post

Space-based technologies are now as much a part of everyday life as electricity or running water. Satnavs are among the most obvious examples, but a range of other activities from paying with a smart card to playing Pokémon Go use satellite networks to transmit data or get a positioning signal. Even a, literally, down-to-earth business like farming is adopting space technology, as John Boelts, Vice President of the Yuma County Farm Bureau, in Arizona explains: “By using GPS on the tractors, the entire process from leveling the field to planting the seed to irrigating the crop has been much more efficient than in the past”.

There are also many indirect, sometimes surprising, uses spinoffs from space programmes. The scanning technologies developed to find a safe landing spot on the Moon were adapted and contributed to give us ultrasound, MRI and CAT scanners, while the impedance cardiography-based devices designed for astronauts evolved into some of the cardiac monitors used today in hospitals and in wearable devices.

However, despite the numerous innovations generated by space programmes, the need for systems to be reliable and durable sector means that the space sector has been risk averse in some respects. The basic technology for sending payloads into space using liquid propellant rockets was first proposed by Russian schoolteacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1903, and Robert H. Goddard successfully launched a liquid-fuelled rocket in 1926.

These two pioneers were Russian and American and their two countries still dominate the world’s spending on space. According to Space and Innovation, a new OECD publication, US and Russian government budgets dedicated to space were over 0.2% of GDP, well ahead of the next biggest spenders France, at 0.1% and Japan at 0.06%. Governments are still the major funders of space programmes, particularly for public good-related activities such as environmental monitoring, weather forecasting, and major scientific missions. National agencies, research centres, universities and publically-funded laboratories still perform fundamental research, applied research, and experimental development in the space sector, but in some countries their mission is evolving to include co-ordinating and enabling broad knowledge diffusion as well as developing start-ups.

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Industry in OECD economies also play an important role, while new entrants, several from the Internet economy, are bringing innovative ways of developing space business. The most famous of these is Elon Musk’s SpaceX project, but there are many smaller scale examples of new entrants, including students using crowdfunding for satellite projects. The University of Alberta’s Ex-Alta-1 satellite for instance is part of the QB50 consortium mission that will study space weather along with 49 other cube satellites. CubeSats are tiny satellites weighing no more than 1.33 kg in a 10cm cube.   Cubesats show up in a new set of indicators developed by the OECD to measure innovation based on patent applications and bibliometric analysis of science and technology publications. Other sources of innovation include nanosatellites, electric satellite propulsion, reusable technologies for launchers, and satellite navigation applications.

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The increasing importance in scientific publications of satellite navigation systems and the many location-based and timing services derived from them can also be traced to recent patenting activities by businesses, demonstrating that much innovation occurs today in downstream space activities. National security and science objectives do however remain the main drivers of innovation, with human space exploration important too.

The indicators quoted by Space and Innovation suggest that the space sector may be on the verge of a fifth cycle of development, following  previous cycles that started with the space race and Sputnik in 1958 and go through to the present cycle, number 4, starting in 2003 and lasting until around 2018. Cycle 4 sees ubiquitous use of space applications in various fields thanks to digitalisation and a new generation of space systems (small satellites) prompted by integration of breakthroughs in micro-electronics, computers and material sciences; and globalisation of space activities (large and very small national space programmes coexist, development of global value chains).

The next cycle, projected to last about 15 years, will be characterised by growing uses of satellite infrastructure outputs (signals, data) to meet societal challenges such as helping bridge the digital divide by supplying Internet access to remote areas without the need to build expensive infrastructures, or contributing to mitigate climate change with global satellite monitoring. In parallel, innovative mass-market products could be on the horizon, plus a more extensive mapping of our solar system and beyond thanks to new telescopes and robotic missions. Cycle 5 is also expected to see new generations of smart satellites and orbital space stations, while a number of commercial space activities could be coming of age, including new human-rated space launchers and in-orbit servicing.

If the promises of Cycle 5 are to be fulfilled, policymakers will have to play a role. They can do this in three broad areas. First, look at the specifics of the space sector and see if national policy instruments that support space innovation are effective, paying particular attention to knowledge diffusion networks. Second participate in and encourage downstream activities, for example through policies that enable start-ups and innovative firms to find or retain niches where they can make the most of their capabilities. Third, space agencies should systematically examine and track the spin-offs and technology transfers to other sectors that are derived from space investments.

The closing session of a symposium on “Space and innovation” being organised today by the OECD Space Forum will discuss whether space is becoming a daily commodity. It is, but as Stephen Hawking says, it is far more than that: “Raise your sights. Be courageous and kind. Remember to look up at the stars and not at your feet.”

Useful links

The Space Economy at a Glance with summaries available in 24 languages.

It IS rocket science

The space shuttle lands for the last time

July 21st is the date NASA shows what it can and can’t do. On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, wiping out the humiliation of Sputnik in 1957 and Gagarin in 1961. This morning, just before dawn, the shuttle landed for the last time.

The space race showed that by mobilising the intellectual, financial and industrial resources of the world’s most powerful nation, it was possible to achieve a spectacular if not particularly useful goal. After a few missions, manned flights to the Moon were abandoned.

The shuttle was supposed to be a cheap, reliable space truck. It turned out to be expensive and dangerous and it too has now been abandoned.

NASA claimed the programme would cost $7.45 billion ($43 billion in 2011 dollars, adjusting for inflation), and $9.3M ($54M in 2011 dollars) per flight. In fact, the programme cost $196 billion (adjusting for inflation) and costs nearly half a billion dollars per launch.

And 14 of the 18 people killed flying into space died on the shuttle.

One reason things didn’t work out as hoped is that the shuttle programme is a mix of innovation and technology lock-in or “path dependency” – you start doing a job one way and keep on doing it like that, even if another technology could do it better.

In fact, Neal Stephenson of Future Tense argues that path dependency is a characteristic of space programmes since the start.

Launch vehicles are based on the rockets used to lob nuclear weapons from one continent to another, and these in turn are based on the V2 rockets Germany developed at the end of WWII.

By definition, these only had to work once, and accuracy wasn’t all that important, given the destructive power of the bombs they carried. Moreover, as long as they got the payload safely into space, it didn’t really matter how badly they themselves were damaged in the process.

None of those conditions applies to the shuttle, yet it uses traditional rocket technology to get up into orbit. (Actually, it goes across. Rockets only travel vertically at the start of the trip to escape the dense lower atmosphere. Then they tilt and fly more or less horizontally until their centrifugal force is enough to overcome gravity.)

Clumsy, limited and expensive as they are, traditional rockets are still the best way we have to get payloads into space. But if space hadn’t been a race, maybe we would have taken the time to think about other ways of getting there.

So has it all been a waste of money? The trillions of dollars spent on developing missiles and today’s spacecraft could have produced a very different space programme. But over 50 countries have now launched and operate a satellite, and at least 12 more intend to have their first satellite in orbit over the next five years.

Space is an essential dimension of today’s world economic infrastructure, and a source of economic growth and new jobs. We’re all used to seeing satellite maps in weather forecasts, but many other applications are all around us without most people being aware of the spaceborne technologies they rely on.

Mobile phone calls bounce off satellites, as do thousands of TV channels. Satellite tracking allows transport companies to locate ships across the world’s oceans, but also to tell us when the next bus is  due. Automatic teller machines outside banks check your PIN code and other details via space.

GPS navigation has created a whole new market for satnav equipment and software, with already more than a billion users in 2010. The use of mobile location technologies in automotive and consumer applications, including smart phones, has been growing exponentially since the early 2000s.

Many other products have benefitted from space R&D, including digital image processing, baby formula and heart pumps, but I think that to look at it in these terms misses the point. A space agency’s job is to help us understand the universe and take advantage of outer space, not to invent new consumer products. As Daniel Lockney, technology transfer program executive at NASA put it: “If you wanted to create a heart pump, building a rocket that will launch it into space wouldn’t be the practical way to go about it.”

Useful links

The Space Economy at a Glance 2011

OECD work on space