From walking on the moon to precise GPS
Over the past 60 years, the space community has achieved some astonishing feats. Men have walked on the moon. We have made it possible to communicate between two points anywhere on Earth instantaneously.
Millions of people now take it for granted that they know precisely where they are, at any time, whatever they are doing. No person under the age of 15 has ever experienced a time when there has not been somebody living and working in space.
These are only a tiny part of a huge story, which includes transformational leaps in our ability to forecast weather, and advancements in our scientific understanding of our Earth and the universe around us, all of which would have been unimaginable even a short time ago. So what comes next?
Unsurprisingly, this is a question I get asked a lot. But the sector is undergoing a major transformation, which makes the answers far from obvious. There are surely few other sectors, if any, that have demonstrated such potential to deliver globally significant impact from concerted action between government, business and science.
Prominent entrepreneurs are investing in Space
At one level, there is renewed vigour in the sector, with some of the world's most prominent entrepreneurs (the likes of Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos) turning to space, and making big investments in their next great innovation ventures.
Government held back from taking strategic leadership
At the same time, constrained public spending in the post-financial-crisis era, combined with the unexpectedly uncertain geopolitical environment, is making it increasingly difficult for governments to make the sorts of long-term commitments that would enable them to take strategic leadership.
So will private sector dominate?
On the face of it, it looks inevitable that the future of the space sector will be dominated by visions of privately run space stations, becoming privately run hotels, and later on the moon, Mars and beyond.
Is this really what the future holds?
But I think there will be a much more potent and significant story running alongside all of this. It may not grab the headlines, but will be where the full potential for space technology can be delivered.
Shift in roles
The shift of leadership from government to private sector will continue, but a new role for government will emerge.
With this shift in leadership, different priorities will come to the fore, which will take the sector in new directions: businesses have different goals to governments, which leads to different decisions being made.
Businesses can act more effectively across international borders, so they will be looking to harness the unique ability of space technology to locate, connect and observe on a truly global scale, in ever more creative and imaginative ways.
A look to the year 2030
To understand what this might mean, let's look at the year 2030. This is the year that all the targets for the UK's Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (IGS) are set: 10% of the global space market; £40 billion annual contribution to GDP; 100,000 space industry jobs.
Even more significantly – and this is the crux – 2030 is also the target year for achieving the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development: 'A 17 point plan to end poverty, halt climate change and fight injustice and inequality', launched in September 2015. This is a global commitment to change the way we manage our planet, and how we sustain human life on it.
Can this be the new 'Grand Challenge' that the space sector has been waiting for?
Space applications to contribute to UN Global Goals
The challenges of the Global Goals aren't new, with many carrying over from the Millennium Development Goals of the last century. But what is new is the renewed and strengthened commitment from governments across the world to achieving the Goals, and the maturity of the space sector to respond with long-term, sustainable solutions.
We're already seeing examples, including O3B's mission to connect 'the Other 3 Billion', OneWeb's mega constellation to provide affordable connectivity for all, and even our own Catapult project with Pew Charitable Trusts using satellites to tackle overfishing, and improve the sustainability of our oceans.
A new type of partnership between business and government
For these businesses to succeed, a new type of partnership between business and government is needed.
New policy instruments are required to enable technologies with global potential to emerge through local obstacles and static regulations, so that businesses can embed the solutions within a sustainable marketplace.
Across government, user departments and development agencies must be ready to lead, through policy, procurement and delivery.
Space agencies must be ready to support, so that national solutions can deliver global significance.
And business must be ready to step forward, to ask the questions, and set the vision.
In 2030, who will the heroes of the space industry be?
So, when we look back from our new vantage point of 2030, who will the heroes of the space industry be?
Perhaps we will be talking about the latest gameshow on Mars. But wouldn't it be so much more amazing if we could finally tell the story of how we helped find the solutions to some of the defining challenges of our age?
Follow me on Twitter: @stuartdmartin
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