Claudia Kessler, an aerospace engineer with a Master of Business Administration degree, has worked in the international space sector for more than 30 years. In 2017 she founded Astronautin GmbH with the goal of launching the first German woman into space. She is a faculty member of the European Institute for Innovation and Sustainability and will lead a program there this Fall on how to be an entrepreneur in space. She recently spoke to The Innovator about business opportunities in space and what executives can learn from astronauts.
Q: How and why did you get involved in space?
CK: My childhood dream was to be an astronaut. I am still working on that. I am also a businesswoman and focus on business opportunities in space.
Q: What are some of the business opportunities in space?
CK: There are a lot of things that can be done with data collected from satellites that we use every day for communication and navigation and to collect data on the ground, be it for construction work, finding new resources, city planning or airplane navigation. Many new companies have been launched in Silicon Valley in the last five to 10 years that are building commercial satellite systems to provide high speed data to remote areas or to serve companies that want to use and work with the data. Another area, which I find to be one of the most exciting, is space tourism. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is the most well-known. Right now, this is only feasible for millionaires. The price of a ticket is around $50 million. Tickets for suborbital flights operated by companies like Virgin Galactic that just go on a suborbital ride, leaving the atmosphere, being weightless for some minutes and then coming cost today about $250,000. In the U.S. companies in this space tourism branch are growing like mushrooms. And then there is the dearMoon project, a lunar tourism mission and art project conceived and financed by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. It will make use of a SpaceX Starship on a private spaceflight around the moon. Axiom, a Houston-based company, is planning to launch a new commercial space station within the next five years which will double as a space hotel. And the Mojave Air and Space Port in the U.S. is home to more than 60 companies engaged in flight development, highly advanced aerospace design, flight test and research. This is not science fiction. Within three to five years there will be loads of new opportunities.
Q: The impact on travel and hospitality is clear. What about other sectors?
CK: There is a lot of buzz around space mining. Luxembourg is aiming to become Europe’s hub for space mining and has announced plans to create a European Space Resources Innovation Centre. We know that meteorites contain a lot of rare earth materials. There are several pilot missions to land on meteorites –which is quite difficult- or to catch meteorites and bring them into low earth orbit for mining.
Another emerging field is one created by space itself: the maintenance of low-earth satellites. There is a market for servicing and maintaining these systems in orbit, such as the exchange of parts impacted by the high radiation, the refueling of satellites in orbit and building new ones. The costly part of satellites is the launch so if you can get the material to the space station and assemble new ones in orbit there would be a good business case for that.
Microgravity research, which allows scientists to conduct experiments that are all but impossible to perform on Earth, can aid medical research into everything from tests for curing osteoporosis to nutrition needs.
The lack of gravity can help us learn about how to create new materials. This is a huge area. There are and have been more than 3000 experiments going on and many are leading to applications created on Earth. For example, the way air is recycled in the space station led to the development of a filter that people can put in the shoes, so they don’t smell.
Work is also being done to see how the full recycling of water in space stations – the coffee you drink today is the coffee you drank yesterday – could be used on Earth in places like the Sahara Desert. If you are in fashion and you want your clothes to be more sweat resistant again this is something that is being worked on in space.
Almost no industry will not be somehow impacted by developments in space or find something that is applicable to them.
Q: You teach a course on how to turn astronaut training into management training. What can business leaders learn from astronauts?
CK: To lead like an astronaut you need resilience, the ability to function in different environments, to deal well with stress and have the flexibility to adapt quickly to new situations. You have to be comfortable with risk-taking, which for business managers means stepping out of the box, getting to know the limits of your comfort zone and work on enlarging that. Astronauts can also teach us how to work with a team remotely. Just as office workers are now working from home ground station managers and astronauts in space work as a team and trust, communications, procedures, and self-management are all important.
Q: What will your course on how to be a space entrepreneur focus on?
CK: It is not about space technology. My course is for business executives. I will explain how space impacts business and industries. I hope to make them understand that it is not about space and Earth. We are part of the universe. We tend to forget that. I will invite them to look at the sky, think about the possibilities and take a broader perspective when thinking about future business opportunities.
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