Space business is taking off. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Larry Page and a host of other forward-thinking investors and entrepreneurs are funneling more time and money to the new space race. My friend Jack Gregg, business professor, researcher, and author has taken a long look at the future of business in space and has uncovered some startling findings about how space-based enterprise will change our global economy. His conclusions about how the space economy will change what we know about business are spelled out in his new book coming out next month called The Cosmos Economy: The industrialization of Space.
I knew that Jack was working on this book for several years and was delighted to hear that it will be published in March 2021. His passion for management education, for space enterprise, and for sussing out what our future will look like when industrial expansion migrates to space and upends earth’s traditional trade relationships fueled his interest in writing the book. His curiosity about this emerging economic trend grew from his broad career spanning academia, private industry, and the non-profit sector. Here is an edited snapshot of our discussion just last week on his journey in writing this fascinating book.
Sherry: Jack, tell me about how you chose to dive into understanding space entrepreneurship.
Jack Gregg: After I left Northrop where I established a strategically focused learning function at their space sector, I took the role of Executive Director at the California Space Authority where we advocated for our aerospace members’ space pursuits. It was a great experience, and I was blessed with a fabulous board of premier companies. I was always interested in the future of space in an abstract way but when I spoke directly with leaders in the space industry, I learned a great deal about the promise of space from a business perspective. I wanted to get a clearer picture of work life in space so I could help design professional education programs to prepare future space workers. I naïvely assumed that there was a meta-vision of future space beyond the vague idea that someday people would be, “…living and working in space.”
But when I asked space industry leaders what space settlers would be doing up there, I got blank stares and shrugs. It was clear that the answer to this question was (a) not relevant to their immediate business agenda, and/or (b) something that they never thought about. This began to worry me.
Even after I returned to academia as an Associate Dean managing MBA programs at UCR and then LMU, my inability to get an answer to that question bothered me. I figured that either (a) no one really had a clue about the future of people living and working in space, (b) I was asking all the wrong questions, or (c) there was some deep dark secret that I didn’t know about. It turns out there was a bit of truth in all three of these. That was the inflection point for me that ultimately led to this book.
I realized that answering this question could be a great research project. But first, I had to build a new network of connections to get access to the leaders and doers in the new space sector: the current agile entrepreneurial arena.
Sherry: What did you learn about the possibilities of working and living in space?
Jack: Many of the things I learned challenged my longstanding assumptions. First, today’s space heroes aren’t named Yuri or Buzz. They’re named Branson, Bezos, Musk and others. They are business renegades unconstrained by social convention or the limits of national borders as they remake the social, political and economic equilibrium of our planet with grand visions of our future in space. They have learned their success comes from thinking big – and doing big things – because there’s no stopping big thinkers committed to exploring the economic frontier of space.
Space enterprise is an economic reality. The promise of human space settlement is now readily accepted and embraced all over the world: evidenced by more than seventy national space agencies vying to play some part in this new economic opportunity.
Most importantly, the cosmos economy will set the stage for new career opportunities for a different type of workforce. Space isn’t just about STEM jobs, although engineering and technical skills will always be valued in space. But traditional business functions are needed like management, finance, marketing, operations – all the frontline competencies that make a business successful. Of special note are the career opportunities for women, underrepresented minorities, and the physically disabled.
The new space economy is not yet fully formed: there are no barriers yet to exclude otherwise qualified persons with ambition and the commitment to achieve something great and make a mark in the cosmos economy. In fact, space firms big and small are always on the hunt for talent. Whenever I make a presentation at a university about the career potential in the emerging space sector, I hear about students who were energized about the potential of this new sector and have switched their professional goals to commercial space.
Sherry: Is space the final frontier? How will we look at space business in the next ten years?
Jack: It seems that every article written about space, begins with the statement that space is the “final frontier” and ends with the benediction to “live long and prosper.” Frankly, there will be no final frontier in space – it’s just too darn big! The industrialization of our solar system will create an unending series of new frontiers for economic development and human settlement that will advance over multiple generations across the solar system. Think of the thousands of small villages and cities that were built from nothing on the American frontier in the nineteenth century. Some became big commercial centers; others became ghost towns. There’s high risk on the frontier but there’s also the lure and motivation of high reward. The potential of expanding human activities to space creates a tremendous array of opportunities for organizations and individuals – new frontiers. Many of these new prospects will make life better for people.
For example, space-based food production will help to feed the millions of people who now go hungry here on Earth as our population grows to more than ten billion people by 2060. Producing food in space will not only help to feed the planet but will also reduce the destructive environmental impact of current industrial farming methods.
Other commercial opportunities in space to consider are constructing space infrastructure, logistical operations, asteroid mining, energy generation, and low-gravity manufacturing to name only a few. It is expected that these activities will gain momentum in the mid-2030s and accelerate through the 2040s. Investors have been energized by studies from private investment firms like BofA/ Merrill Lynch who estimate the space economy to be well over $2.7+ trillion by mid-2040 and the US Department of Commerce’s estimate of a $3+ trillion space economy by mid-century. That’s only a few decades away.
Sherry: What will be the financial machinery that drives this new industry?
Jack: There will be several different gears in that machinery and speculative investment is playing a big part. Note that for over fifty years we’ve thought of space in terms of government financing. That still is the NASA commercial model. But the big news in recent years is the shift to private space investment. This means that space companies can set the agenda and at the core of their agenda is profitability. Musk’s SpaceX, Bezos’ Blue Origin, Branson’s Virgin Galactic are just a few well-known private space companies. What’s off the radar are the many privately funded startups all over the world that see space as a worthy entrepreneurial investment opportunity.
There are still state funded space activities, of course. Russia, China, UAE, India, and other nations don’t want to be left out of the new space gold rush. In fact, our biggest commercial competitor in space is China. Their state-owned enterprise model (SOE) freely funnels government resources to their ‘private’ space programs. China is building a base on the moon right now and anticipates establishing a permanent human presence. Their goal is to dominate the lunar territorial domain.
China’s space activities are an example of a major shift in how we think about space. We were brought up thinking about it as a U.S. adventure – think of American Apollo astronauts on the moon, the Space Shuttle. But two thirds of today’s space companies are non-American. And the trend of non-U.S. space firms looking to remake themselves as a space company is growing rapidly.
Sherry: How will this new vision in the cosmos economy change how we do business on earth?
Jack: On a macro level, new technologies disrupt old processes and methods. Old technologies will die hard. The process of creating a new space culture and economy will naturally create new challenges that will, in turn, generate new solutions. For example, if you’re operating a power generating facility based upon burning carbon fuel and a competitive space entrepreneur offers to beam energy directly to your customers anywhere on Earth from space you may have to rethink your business model.
Sherry: What have you learned about yourself through this research and writing of your book?
Jack: I learned about managing my creative process. After I left organizational life, I realized that what I really didn’t like about work was that I couldn’t define my own success. This book project helped me define my own notion of success which was very liberating.
Also, I naturally had moments of doubt about my ability to find the answers I was looking for. I wondered if my vision was ever really going to become the book I wanted. I kept powering through the self-doubt and got past that and keep focused on what I needed to do. I learned that persistence is a valuable strength.
Further, I was able to leverage skills from my former professional life to complete this book. I was always good at building productive relationships with people and this helped me connect in the space ecosystem and enabled me to put together a good pool of expert resources. I realized that my skill of building strong professional relationships was there with me all along.