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Op-Ed by Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross: Launching Toward a $1 Trillion Space Economy

Nearly 60 years ago, a lone American was launched into the great unknown of space — John Glenn had been sent on an orbital mission spanning thousands of miles, skimming the Earth’s atmosphere.

Today, America’s leadership in space continues unabated. But it looks quite different.

After the Space Shuttle program concluded in 2011, it appeared that Florida’s Space Coast would turn into a “Ghost Coast,” a graveyard of abandoned dreams. Thousands of engineers, scientists, technicians, and contractors lost their jobs. The industry, which was dependent on the federal government, was in full retreat.

But not anymore. Thanks to the combined innovation and ingenuity of private companies and NASA, the United States’ space industry is transitioning from public sector dependence to private sector dominance. The global space economy is nearing $400 billion. And commercial enterprise now accounts for the majority of space activity. The Space Coast’s jobs have returned, and Cape Canaveral is rumbling with the sound of frequent liftoffs once again.

With 2018 being celebrated as “the year of launch,” the space industry has roared back to life with new and significant innovations. Reusable rockets became a reality. Small rockets started lifting commercial cargo into space at 5 percent of the previous total launch cost — a harbinger of things to come in the sector. And Richard Branson gave the world an early Christmas present by taking Americans into space on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

This year, the Trump Administration is continuing to advance policies that will eliminate regulatory barriers to space commerce and ignite steady economic growth in the industry. Morgan Stanley projects the global space economy will be $1.1 trillion by 2040. Bank of America’s forecast is even more bullish, projecting the industry could reach $3 trillion.

But how do we get to $1 trillion?

Number one: decreasing costs. Commercial achievements show how industry is transforming from custom-designed, “one-off” research projects to repetitive use of standardized systems, such as satellites and launch vehicles.

Launch companies are cutting costs through reusability, sustainability, and shared services. These advancements will be crucial as the number of American satellites is projected to jump from 800 to approximately 15,000 in the next five years.

Number two: disrupting traditional commercial models. Today, data collected from space is vast and valuable. The entire globe is imaged at least once daily, and location-based services are expanding. More precise weather predictions are helping farmers, shippers, and pilots.

Additionally, GPS technology has redefined the way most people live their daily lives. Digital maps reduce travel times by 12 percent on average, while 4 million jobs globally are directly linked to GPS.

Number three: diversifying financing and insurance options. Missing from space finance are the bigger institutions, especially banks. If America is going to return to the moon and get to Mars — and fully realize the unprecedented business ideas in between — we will need strong participation from all levels of the capital structure.

In December, the Department of Commerce helped lead the charge expanding that discussion. We hosted more than 75 leaders from finance and commercial space institutions at our first ever Space Investment Summit. Our discussions highlighted industry trends, risks, information needs, and goals for the future. In early March, the Department is holding another forum, this time bringing together members of the insurance industry and space situational awareness providers to discuss how future collaboration can transform space insurance practices.

Number four: providing a safe space environment. Hundreds of thousands of pieces of space debris circle the planet at speeds greater than 15,000 mph, putting valuable commercial assets, critical national security assets, the International Space Station, and public safety at risk. At President Donald Trump’s direction, the Department of Commerce is working with the Department of Defense to establish a civil agency interface to provide basic space situational awareness data services to private firms.

And number five: growing domestic talent. As space ventures bring more automation, computerized controls, and robotics into the supply chain, the United States must build a stronger labor force. By expanding vocational programs, training, and apprenticeships, the Trump Administration is positioning the United States for an unprecedented surge in talented science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workers across all layers of the space supply chain to ensure that our country continues to push the boundaries of what is possible through space development and exploration.

Last year — the year of launch — was quite exciting. I believe 2019 promises to be even better. For the first time in almost a decade, NASA astronauts will again ride American rockets into space. I can’t wait.