Monday, January 16, 2012

Is There Profit in Space?

Qn, a publication of the Yale School of Management, published in December an article titled, "Is There Profit in Outer Space?"

Unlike many articles these days about commercial space, this one looks primarily at Orbital Sciences. Orbital will send the Cygnus cargo ship to the International Space Station later this year.

For years, the bulk of Orbital Sciences Corporation's work has been designing, building, and launching commercial, scientific, and defense satellites—probably the closest thing there is to a reliable, profitable niche in the space business. Now the company is trying something new. In 2012, this silver and gold puck bristling with guidance sensors and wing-like solar arrays—Orbital's cargo-carrying Cygnus Advanced Maneuvering Spacecraft—is scheduled to navigate itself to a rendezvous with the International Space Station.

Any company in the business of space must be prepared for extreme complexity, as technical, logistical, regulatory, political, operational, and management challenges collide. The up-front costs are tremendous; the returns are uncertain. Tolerance for error is close to zero, yet the materials and engineering must push the bounds of what is currently possible. And though they seem innumerable, every contingency must be planned for. This isn't just rocket science; it's the business of rocket science.

The article suggests that spaceflight itself may never generate a "total profitability," but in the long run its benefit to humanity will justify the operating expense.

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