The New Space Race

Oct. 10, 2013, 4:03 p.m.

Space entrepreneurship is hard. Good ideas can be hard to come by and discovering one often requires a deep knowledge of the field. Huge upfront costs and long lead times before real return on investment has often left space the realm of governments and the extremely rich. But thanks to emerging companies, unique business models and developing technology, these obstacles are eroding. And the Stanford Student Space Initiative is capitalizing on this new environment to show students how they can make a difference.

Examples of this changing environment are all around us. The recent success of SpaceX’s new Falcon 9 gives tremendous credibility to the company’s promise of lower cost paths to orbit. The explosion of cubesats, small satellites with standardized dimensions that fly as secondary payloads, has created a low cost means of getting hardware to orbit; this has allowed 50-person companies like Planet Labs to put up dozens of satellites at a time for a few hundred thousand dollars to accomplish tasks that previously would have cost billions.

The growing number of low cost, space-based platforms being launched to the International Space Station brings the promise of opening up space experiments and manufacturing to everyone. As just one example, Made In Space, a 15-person company based at the NASA Ames Research Park, is on track to send a 3D printer to the ISS this summer and give people the opportunity to create their own products in orbit for extremely low cost.

These developments have fostered tremendous public excitement and involvement, which has become critical to the survival of this industry. Virgin Galactic has overcome hardships and delays in its quest to revolutionize space tourism because of the dedication of their customers. SpaceX, Planetary Resources and most space startups rely on talented student interns to help them accomplish their ambitious goals with limited budgets and small teams. Even well established agencies like NASA will depend on a new generation of visionaries to push our nation’s space program in the right direction, as the majority of their employees near retirement.

Recognizing both this growing need and burgeoning opportunity, Stanford students are coming together to make a difference through the Stanford Student Space Initiative (SSI). Aiming to both promote space entrepreneurship and build a stronger space community, SSI shows students how they can get involved, educate them on the pain points in the industry and provide them with the network and resources to pursue their ideas.

Bolstered by huge support from alumni, local companies and professors, SSI helps students get hands on experience with real aerospace hardware and holds recruiting events to help these students find internships; for example, the group brought SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell to Stanford on Sept. 30. Going further, SSI also pushes students to develop their own ideas through ideation sessions and startup events like the NewSpace Business Plan Conference, which SSI is hosting at Stanford on Oct. 24 in partnership with the Space Frontier Foundation and NASA.

Our ventures in space have always embodied the human desire to learn and explore. The spectacular Apollo missions continue to inspire generations to dream big and literally reach for the stars, including Elon Musk, whose dream of going to Mars has inspired thousands.

Dozens of nations are creating and expanding their space programs in the name of science. Curiosity’s findings on Mars continue to make headlines and jumpstart discussions about life beyond Earth. The excitement of all these incredible projects and new space discoveries is tangible. It’s only been a few months since SSI was recognized as an official student group, but it’s already grown to hundreds of members.

Ultimately, SSI believes that we are approaching a transformative time where anyone who wants to go to space will actually be able. All it takes to get there is showing people how they can make it happen and providing them the tools to do so.

David Gerson ’14 is president of Stanford Student Space Initiative.

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