Up, up and... Away?
Lower costs, greater opportunities ahead, but not for everyone – the long-range view from Vector
The commercial space industry supply chain is on the verge of a sea-change in the way business is conducted. That message, says Jim Cantrell, CEO of Vector, can be taken either as cause for celebration or as a dire warning.
If you want to catch a glimpse into the future of the space industry, put yourself in the shoes of someone who's put their money where their mouth is.
Jim Cantrell is one of those people. As co-founder and CEO of Arizona-based Vector, Jim and his leadership team of space industry heavyweights (each drawn from the likes of SpaceX, NASA, Virgin Galactic, Boeing, and McDonnell Douglas) have created a business to help facilitate what he calls the “consumerization” of space.
“What we’re witnessing is something pretty fundamental in terms of disruption and change. What I liken it to is the elevator, and how it changed New York,” Jim explains. “If you looked at the skyline of New York in the 1800s, it was pretty flat. When the elevator came along, it enabled real estate to grow vertically. And what I see, long term, is space doing the same thing to our economy. To date, I think it’s had a very minimal impact, and what we’re standing on is the edge of a new era. Much like the elevator, it’s going to expand our economic real estate into space.”
This fundamental shift has gained momentum rapidly over the past decade with the emergence of advanced small satellite technologies. These breadbox-size satellites have supplanted their bigger, heavier and far more expensive predecessors. This in turn has opened up the playing field to many more players, notably in the domestic commercial sector (see chart below), and in particular with significant growth in communications and remote sensing applications.
“If you looked at the skyline of New York in the 1800s, it was pretty flat. When the elevator came along, it enabled real estate to grow vertically. And what I see, long term, is space doing the same thing to our economy.” – Jim Cantrell
As the satellites get smaller, the waiting lines get longer
What has prevented even greater expansion, however, is the cost and availability of the launch systems needed to carry the satellites into space. Typically, micro-satellites are treated as “extra baggage” – taken on only if and when there’s any room available once a rocket’s main payload is determined. Furthermore, the smaller satellite companies have no say in the scheduling of the flights and often have to wait for months for deployment.
Vector aims to reduce and eliminate the bottlenecks that prevent greater advancement of commercial micro-satellites
Reversing these cost and launch-scheduling barriers is Vector's core mission. Since its inception in 2016, the company has developed two launch vehicle models, both of which are flight-ready, and established five launch sites. Vector’s services are designed specifically to support micro-satellite businesses where they need it most.
Vector’s example bodes well for this next phase in the industry’s evolution: Less than two years since its formation, the company has booked multi-year launch reservations with some of the world’s leading space organizations.
Vector operates at launch sites located throughout the United States. Shown above is Launch Complex 46 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Thinking ahead: (yet another) hardware-to-software success story
The Vector team is moving forward aggressively with its launch systems, but, Jim Cantrell asks, why stop there? There are limits to the number of launch vehicle manufacturers and, to a lesser extent, limits to the number of satellite makers. In both cases, the constraints are the capital costs and the shortage of the specialized expertise required to design, build and operate the systems. To find ways to help their customers address and overcome these barriers, the Vector team sought out solutions not just in the space and aviation industry but also in Silicon Valley.
“We think the future is a software application layer. It’s much like the IT industry relying on software development that uses platforms that are just there... and you build your solution on top of them. That’s where we’re focused.”
“We think the future is a software application layer," says Jim. "It’s much like the IT industry relying on software development that uses platforms that are just there. You don’t know that you’re using this programming platform or that one – they’re just there, and you build your solution on top of them. So we will progress to that level in space, and, again, create this whole other economic sphere – much like Manhattan rose above New York City. That’s where we’re focused.”
Accordingly, just weeks after Vector itself was formed, the company announced the creation of a business unit, Galactic Sky, to provide customers with a unique, low-cost, software-defined satellite platform. Instead of a hundred-million-dollar project with a development schedule that’s measured in years, Galactic Sky envisions software-centric projects coming in at less than ten thousand dollars, and with cycles measured in weeks.
"Disruption" is a double-edged sword
There are countless examples of industries that have been transformed by software-engineered solutions that replace or eliminate conventional tools, processes and/or resources. The space industry is no exception, even if, as Jim Cantrell points out, it’s still in its early infancy.
“It’s going to become more commoditized, as the numbers of satellites go up and the capital expense goes down. So the supply chain community is also going to morph. I know this may not be the news you want to hear, but I really see a lot of these traditional suppliers – of low-number, high-cost items – as being a thing of the past. They’re going to have to adopt their processes and their businesses to new ways and new things, and that’s not going to be easy. A lot of them won’t survive, and a number of new ones will crop up to take their place.”
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To learn more about Vector, visit their website here.