Spaceflight after the pandemic

The pandemic has created crowing demand for broadband that could be an opportunity for constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink, if they can afford to build and launch their satellites. (credit: SpaceX)



A crisis as big as the coronavirus pandemic can’t help but change the world. The space industry will change. We have already seen changes, like OneWeb filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March. There will be many more changes as this crisis plays out and long afterwards.

We’re not used to dealing in our lifetimes with the type of threat that the coronavirus is presenting on a global scale. Nor are we used to recovering from something quite like this. How spaceflight and spending money on space exploration will be perceived post pandemic is an interesting question.

Prior to this virus rearing its ugly head, spaceflight and human space exploration were, in my opinion, on a healthy upswing from both a government and a commercial perspective. Costs have been coming down, driven by the competition primarily initiated by SpaceX. That company has proven not only that first stage reuse is possible, but also that there are cheaper and better ways to develop, manufacture, and manage rocket programs. They have also brought creative thinking back to the industry. The Trump Administration has brought back bold and creative thinking to NASA. Jim Bridenstine is unleashing, within political constraints, ideas that should get us back to the Moon. There is a flurry of creativity growing in everything from small launchers to Vulcan, New Glenn, and Starship, as well as massive satellite constellations. The big unknown is what happens to the industry because of this pandemic.

The answer to how the space industry will be affected by COVID-19 starts with how bad the pandemic gets and how long it lasts. I will start with the worst case. If this pandemic kills millions of people in several waves and crushes the global economy into a global depression, I do not see the space industry returning to current levels of development for a long time. We will have far bigger things to worry about than sending people to the Moon and Mars. The best case is this disease fades out in a few months and we go back to what we have been doing. My guess is it will be somewhere in between, and we will have to figure out how to manage our existence and get back to work while this plays out.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11. America changed. We were stunned out of our complacency of thinking that we were safe from these kind of attacks being protected by two oceans from the rest of the world. We got angry. We went to war, entering fights that are still going on. We added security to our airports. We added security to airliner cockpits. We still take off our shoes before boarding airplanes. We also have a new generation coming up that fortunately has no idea what it felt like that September day in 2001 when our nation was attacked.

Being shut down like we are now is not sustainable. Eventually we must open up and restart our economy regardless of this pandemic. We will find a way to restart, but probably in ways that will include massive changes and adjustments that will apply to all industries, including spaceflight.

In my business I’m used to working from home at times. I do it exclusively now. NASA is finding out who can work from home and who can’t. That’s going on across the board in every industry that is still up and running. There are, of course, lots of jobs that just can’t be done that way. But companies are quickly figuring out who can. That is just going to accelerate what was already a trend. I’ve noticed over the last few years, as the economy around Milwaukee has been booming, there were a surprising number of buildings in office parks with “for rent” signs in front of them. I asked a friend who owns several of these buildings what’s going on. He said many of his tenants had reduced their office space as more and more of their employees worked from home. He said the whole area has had dropping occupancy rates and dropping rents for a few years.

Some things in aerospace manufacturing and operations just can’t be done remotely yet. You need people on-site to manufacture a rocket engine. You need people on-site to assemble a rocket stage. You need people on-site to move a rocket to a test stand or onto a launch pad. Virtual meetings with Zoom, GoToMeeting, or Microsoft Teams cannot fully replace face-to-face meetings. To facilitate people working together in close proximity, it may become standard—at least until this pandemic is over—that employees are required to take their own temperature before they come in to work or wear a mask while at work. There are going to be ways to keep working and the space industry along with all others are going to have to find safer ways to keep open. It will be interesting to see how it works out as thousands of production workers return to building airliners at Boeing. It could be a guide for programs like SLS.

I have heard speculation, usually from people that don’t like SLS, that government priorities will change, as a result canceling SLS, Orion, and the whole Artemis program so money can be shifted to research on viruses and pandemic mitigation. For example, an op-ed last month published by ZDNet argued that NASA should be shut down and the money spent on coronavirus research. I think this is highly unlikely to happen. When the economy loses 36 million jobs in eight weeks, the last thing Congress or the President will want to do is lay off tens of thousands of more people. We learned from the recession triggered by the banking crisis that there are almost no “shovel ready jobs” to pour billions of dollars into. Projects that are ready for earth to be moved and concrete to be poured have already had a few years of engineering work done and are mostly already funded.

If the federal government decides to pour tens of billions of dollars of new spending on virus and pandemic research it will not quickly create many new jobs to help the economy recover. There is no idle standing army of experienced scientists with fully equipped labs that have been waiting for this moment to spring into action. While there will be some new jobs, the bulk of the money will go to scientists redirected from work on other diseases. We can’t just snap our fingers and create new qualified research scientists. The process takes years.

As we get through and over this crisis, however long that may be, there will be two distinct priorities. One is to figure out how to reduce the risk of contagious diseases and mitigate the damage to public health. The second, and equally important, priority is to get the economy up and running again. In some cases, these two priorities will be complimentary. In other cases, they will conflict with each other, as can be seen by the protests against state lockdowns.

Federal spending is has already seen changed priorities because of COVID-19. The US Treasury has its electronic printing press running at high speed, creating new money to at first bridge us through this crisis with loans to businesses, purchases of medical supplies, funding of research, payments to hospitals and individuals, and paying for piles of pork buried into bills coming from Congress. Most of this spending is being rushed with little time for debate or deep thought. There just isn’t time for the normal gridlock of continuing resolutions Congress has negligently left us with for years. As we move through, and hopefully beyond, this crisis, it will give the administration and Congress time to think about where money should be spent. This will be when NASA’s budget is most likely to be affected.

In the next few years, I don’t think existing programs at NASA will have too much to worry about, especially if our economic recovery is a slow struggle. Not many in Congress will want to be seen as cutting jobs until we are back to full employment. That is why I think SLS, Orion, and the encompassing Artemis program, including lunar landers, will continue. It’s new initiatives that currently have little or no funding and small staffs that probably have more to worry about. If priorities change and the economy struggles, new space initiatives, including science missions and long-term human spaceflight plans, like establishing a more permanent presence on the Moon, will in my opinion be the first to take a hit. It’s easier to not start funding a program than to take the political heat for laying off people.

Where I think existing human spaceflight programs will start to face risk of scaling back is in follow-ups to the first return to the lunar surface. If no outpost and science research is funded on the lunar surface, the program will start to resemble the flags and footprints look of Apollo. That will make it easy to use the “been there, done that” argument again. Regardless of the technical, economic, and scientific merit, funding for SLS upgrades, use of alternate launchers, and expanding the lunar Gateway could dry up, especially if international partners pull back or become reluctant to take part.

In the business world, lots of things are on hold, including some venture capital investments. People investing in speculative new ventures are going to be hesitant to make commitments until they see what the way forward is. I don’t blame them. I could see them putting the brakes on funding many of the companies developing small launchers. Regardless of this crisis, it was likely only a few of them will survive anyways.

Most satellite operators must be looking at what Starlink, Project Kuiper, and Telesat LEO are doing with both interest and concern in an industry already going through some struggles. Intelsat, one of the largest operators, is reorganizing under Chapter 11 bankruptcy due in part to heavy debt. Some of companies are looking into possibly buying the assets of OneWeb. With the demise of OneWeb, it looks like it is up to SpaceX with their Starlink project, Amazon with Project Kuiper, and Telesat with Telesat LEO to see if there is a market for a nearly global low latency satellite-based Internet service. A very promising sign is that the US Air Force is interested in becoming an anchor customer for Starlink. With their Global Lightning project, they want to test how the system can work with their aircraft practically anywhere in the world. The Air Force Research Laboratory is planning on putting terminals on several types of aircraft. In addition, I suspect the demand for Internet bandwidth will grow significantly because virtual meetings are going to become far more common, replacing business travel for face-to-face meetings. As the technology gets better, whether through foresight or dumb-luck timing, I suspect that Elon Musk is in the right place at the right time again with this idea.

If Starlink, Project Kuiper, and Telesat LEO end up working well, providing high speed Internet service from LEO constellations, I suspect it may put the rest of the commercial satellite industry in a quandary. Will they be able to compete? Will these LEO constellations do to the GEO satellite industry what Falcon 9 has been doing to the global launch market? Video entertainment is moving increasingly to streaming services. They don’t need direct broadcast satellites for their business model to succeed. Internet services are not as responsive when geostationary satellites are used because of the latency from their altitude. I have to wonder how many of these satellite operators are looking into buying the assets of OneWeb so as to not be left behind. However, right now getting capital to purchase OneWeb might be a particularly difficult challenge because so many people and companies are taking a step back to figure out how they move forward from here.

After the current pandemic is over, we will make some adjustments, but our new normal may not be so totally different than our pre-COVID-19 days. I suspect that it will be common for companies to buy thermal imaging cameras to quickly scan employees coming into large offices, factories, and stores. Airports around the world will probably install these same cameras to detect sick people coming and going, like airports in China have deployed. Hand sanitizing stations will probably become more common everywhere. But I suspect we will be packing bars, restaurant, arenas, and stadiums to continue doing what we love. I do think we will get more and more used to virtual meetings cutting down business travel. We will, for a while, spend more on infectious disease research and mitigation. But unless we get another major pandemic, we will probably over time let our guard down again. We always do after a threat fades far enough into history.

There is one area where I think this pandemic and the potential for future pandemics could in the very long term, as in the next two to three decades, drive the need for space travel. And that is in providing a location to safely do necessary, but risky biological research.

Epidemics and pandemics have come and gone throughout human history. As much as we like to think we’re getting better at controlling diseases, we still have a long way to go. New nasty diseases pop up from time to time that not only attack humans, but also livestock, fish, and wildlife. Recently, Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus Serotype 2 or RHDV-2 was found in Southern California for the first time. This virus is capable of destroying the rabbit population in an area and, in turn, collapse the local ecosystem because rabbits are a key food supply for many other animals. We need to do risky research into these microorganisms for our own safety and economic wellbeing.

During this pandemic there have been stories in the media about speculation that the virus was either created in a Chinese lab near Wuhan or it was a naturally occurring virus being studied that was accidently released into the human population. Even if it’s just another conspiracy theory, it still underscores that working with pathogens is dangerous in and of itself. It may become more dangerous as research into genetically engineered viruses and bacteria moves forward. There is an argument that this research is too dangerous to do on Earth, with the accidental or intentional release of a contagion being a possibility. It makes for an argument that some of this research may be safer to move to the Moon or to Mars.

Over millions of years, humans and other animals have, in part, been shaped by viruses, prions, bacteria, and fungi. They are the primary reason we have immune systems. Viruses have from time to time incorporated themselves into our genome. An endogenous retrovirus known as HERKV became part of our genome roughly 200,000 years ago and protects us early in life from other viruses, including the flu, starting when we are just embryos. The regular exposure to constantly evolving infectious organisms has strengthened life by building immune systems through natural selection and mutations. While it has strengthened some species, it has also most likely been the reason for the extinction of many other species. It is possible that this coronavirus, and other viruses we have yet to face, will strengthen us as a species with a tougher immune system in future generations. In the short term, these pandemic viruses are brutal and merciless to the individual. However, I don’t think too many people right now are all that interested in the benefits to generations far in the future. We need to come up with better ways to quickly identify and understand new viral threats, including how they spread and how to contain and neutralize them.

A big part of our immune system comes from symbiotic bacteria that live on our skin, in our respiratory system, in our gut, and in any other nook and cranny they can survive in. One possible avenue of building defenses may eventually be to genetically engineer friendly bacteria that could help protect us. In addition, genetic engineering of bacteria is going to be increasingly used in finding solutions for problems like drug manufacturing, producing chemicals, breaking down waste products like plastics, and things we have yet to imagine. For example, it may be possible to genetically engineer bacteria normally found in soil to extract nitrogen from the air providing fertilizer for crops. Releasing a genetically engineered bacterium into the environment would risk unintended consequences.

As the current pandemic highlights, microorganisms can be a significant threat and that research into these organisms is absolutely necessary and also very risky. That’s where the needs of protecting us and spaceflight may intersect. In 20 or 30 years, if we humans have established a settlement on Mars, the planet might become the perfect place to host this kind of work. Imagine research outposts separated a safe distance from the main settlement. If a contagion breaks through the pressure vessel it is immediately in a near vacuum environment with high ultraviolet light and high radiation from solar wind and galactic cosmic rays. It probably wouldn’t last very long.

With the variety of research that needs to be done, Mars may be the best location for several reasons. It likely has enough gravity to maintain the health of researchers, although that has yet to be proven. If there is an infrastructure in place to build large domes, it would be cheaper than building large rotating stations to supply artificial gravity. The labs won’t require a continuous stream of heavy payloads from Earth. Large domes could contain a variety of biomes to test how pathogens or gene-edited bacteria might spread and interact with plants, insects, animals, and bacteria without the risk of release on Earth. The risk of accidental release is eliminated, since the results of the research could be transmitted back to Earth instead of actually transporting pathogens.

When scientists conduct research on pathogens it is done in laboratories with a graduated scale of biosafety levels from 1 to 4. No matter the biosafety level, these labs can fail to contain due to human error or intentional malfeasance. And accidents usually caused by human error have happened in these labs.

I do believe such research is necessary because we need to be better prepared when pandemics strike. There is no guarantee that the next one won’t be far deadlier than the current one. We, as in the entire world, obviously were not prepared for this one. I do think that, as soon as it is practical, we should move such research to Mars where an accidental release won’t kill millions and devastate the world economy. The world has lost trillions of dollars in GDP in the last few months. The cost to the world of a few tens of billions of dollars a year to support labs off Earth would be a bargain if it could safely do the research to prepare us properly to handle infectious disease threats without risking a catastrophe from an accident. Research into deadly pathogens could, literally and figuratively, be the killer app that economically supports outposts on Mars. In the long term, this pandemic may provide the impetus to further our expansion into the rest of the solar system.

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