The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) achieved global acclaim by launching successful missions to the moon and Mars at a fraction of the cost of prior Western missions. It is now faced with an important strategic dilemma-whether to continue exploring deep space in collaboration with NASA and other leading agencies, whether to leverage its infrastructure for societal uses, or whether to exploit a commercial opportunity related to launching small, handheld cubesats.
The case explores the basis for ISRO's cost advantage vis-à-vis western entities, as well as its resource constraints and human capital considerations as it makes this important strategic choice for the future.
After decades of centralized control of economic activity in space, NASA and U.S. policymakers have begun to cede the direction of human activities in space to commercial companies. NASA garnered more than 0.7% of GDP in the mid-1960s but is only around 0.1% of GDP today. Meanwhile, space has become big business, with $300 billion in annual revenue.
The shift from public to private priorities in space is especially significant because a widely shared goal among commercial space's leaders is the achievement of a large-scale, mainly self-sufficient, developed space economy. Jeff Bezos has stated that the mission of his firm Blue Origin is "millions of people living and working in space." Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, has laid out plans to build a city of a million people on Mars within the next century. Both Neil deGrasse Tyson and Peter Diamandis have been given credit for stating that Earth's first trillionaire will be an asteroid miner. Such visions are clearly not going to become reality in the near future. But detailed roadmaps to them are being produced, and recent progress in the required technologies has been dramatic. If such space-economy visions are even partially realized, the implications for society will be enormous. Though economists should treat the prospect of a developed space economy with healthy skepticism, it would be irresponsible to treat it as science fiction.
In this article, I provide an analytical framework — based on classic economic analysis of the role of government in market economies — for understanding and managing the development of the space economy.
Planetary Resources, Inc. (PRI) had a bold, some said crazy, vision: to mine asteroids. One might have assumed that developing the right technology would be the greatest challenge facing PRI. But even if the fledgling company could develop and deploy the sophisticated imaging, prospecting, and communication capabilities required for mining asteroids, two additional obstacles meant success was not guaranteed. First, uncertainty remained over whether, and how, property rights to resources mined in space would be enforced.
PRI's leadership's challenge was to anticipate, and perhaps shape, how this uncertainty would be resolved. Making that balancing act more difficult was a second factor: a complex and underfunded U.S. regulatory infrastructure that threatened to slow PRI's progress and escalate costs.
Ramana Nanda and Matthew Weinzierl. 11/28/2016. “FINANCING ASTROSCALE.” Harvard Business School Case 817-025.
An engineer and technology entrepreneur, Nobu Okada, had turned a mid-life crisis into a bold-some would say quixotic-quest to prevent a tragedy of the commons at the global scale. Namely, Okada believed the accumulation of debris in near-Earth orbital space posed a serious threat to a vast array of critical satellites and, thereby, both the modern information economy and the future of human activities in space. Frustrated at what he saw as far too slow a reaction to the threat among major space powers, Okada planned to develop a spacecraft capable of adhering to, and redirecting, that debris. By lowering the costs of debris removal, he hoped to make it routine, even in the absence of government action.
As of 2016 his company, Astroscale, which had secured private funding years earlier, was nearing the first demonstration of the technology. This case is intended to help students understand how a tragedy of the commons develops in a specific, nearly textbook example. As important, this case is about potential solutions to the tragedy of the commons when the market and policy both fall short.
Jeff Bezos, six years after starting a revolution in retailing with Amazon.com, turned his life-long passion for space into a start-up, Blue Origin. Blue (as it was called) was a part of the New Space industry, a collection of startup aerospace engineering companies that were intent on disrupting the American space sector with new technologies, management approaches, and competitive pressure. NASA hoped to leverage New Space to outsource its near-Earth activities and refocus its own efforts on deep space exploration. One of the agency's main mechanisms for this shift of activities was its Commercial Crew Development program (CCDev), a multi-phase initiative launched in 2009. Blue participated in the first two rounds of CCDev, and by all accounts these had been win-win experiences for it and NASA.
The decision point of the case is whether Blue should participate in the third, much larger, and more complex, stage of CCDev. The trade-off facing Blue's leaders was between the legitimacy, expertise, and funding provided by working with NASA and the autonomy, efficiency, and independence threatened by working with NASA. How would Blue, with its clear respect for NASA but its desire (and financial ability) to set its own priorities, make this decision?
Space Data Corp. plans to partner with the U.S. National Weather Service to place transceivers on weather balloons and thereby create a national mobile communications network. The company is in the late development stages and is planning to launch a regional test that will demonstrate its ability to provide paging and messaging. It intends to sell its service to existing mobile carriers, such as Skytel and Verizon, rather than directly to end users.
This case illustrates how Space Data has applied flexible business processes throughout its initial market research and technology development to create a system that can make optimal use of its limited resources and respond rapidly to changing conditions. As the case concludes, the executive team at Space Data faces three opportunities, each with very different costs and benefits for the company. It can proceed with a regional test of paging and messaging as planned, leap forward to develop a more complex but potentially more lucrative voice service (forgoing a regional test), or make a transition to the small but financially stable telemetry market.
Examines the history of Iridium Communications, a provider of mobile satellite services. Discusses the genesis of Iridium's technical design, then follows the venture through various stages of development. Describes Iridium's attempts to build a subscriber base after the launch of commercial service, ending with the company's filing for Chapter 11 in 1999.