The scale of NASA, the global space economy, and commercial space to come

After a specific scale, our intuition fails us. Whatever is so much larger, farther, or faster than our day-to-day experience is quickly incomprehensible. This is so for the scale of NASA. As if degrees of the unimaginable are possible, the scale of the global space economy beyond NASA is larger by over a factor of ten. What of the scale when we hear about the growth of the worldwide space economy to a trillion dollars?

It’s difficult enough to imagine what happens from an annual NASA budget of 23 billion dollars. But we might try, setting this number next to rockets, a telescope, and a space station, all physically tangible. We might go further and think about the global space business of a few hundred billion dollars a year as a dish on your neighbor’s roof or the GPS that feeds your app.

Then reports come along of a potential trillion-dollar space sector by 2040. Perhaps there is even a multi-trillion market around then. But what seems clear, that much of this growth may be in satellite broadband, obscures everything that is less clear – possibilities we can’t yet imagine. Because after all, once we start tossing around trillions, it’s safe to say we are talking about options we can’t yet match to what’s tangible.

Above, in the lower-left outlined in bright red, is NASA. Yes, that little acreage is all of NASA’s yearly budget.

With that in mind, I graphed NASA, the current global space sector, and the potential trillion-dollar space sector to come. Above, in the lower-left outlined in bright red, is NASA. Yes, that little acreage is all of NASA’s yearly budget. The bright blue outline of all the rest of the neighborhood is the current yearly global space economy, according to one data source. (Other sources put the number higher, well above $300 billion a year.) Lastly, the “potential” acreage is all the blue sky ahead, 2040 or so really not that far away.

There are no givens in the space industry, of course. Every launch is a chance to fail. Every technology has its healthy dose of optimism, a syndrome not unique to NASA plans. But more so, beyond flowing even more zeros and ones between Earth and Space, there is so much possibility. A space-based pharmaceutical factory, alongside a medical research station, invaluable fiber or materials only producible in near zero-gravity, are all part of this “potential” acreage to come.

Still, if that small part of the picture – NASA – exists yet is nearly incomprehensible, how can we grasp what’s possible, with a number that dwarfs NASA? One step at a time is a good start.

In 2006 NASA began its half-billion-dollar investment in SpaceX to get cargo to the International Space Station. This is a large number, nearly unimaginable resources, but you could have gathered up the dozens of NASA personnel in the responsible office, alongside a few thousand SpaceX employees and managed to somewhat grasp the challenge. Today SpaceX is valued at over 100-billion dollars. Imaginable steps can lead to unimaginable value.

A small step, in the right direction, well defined, and quite manageable, can well connect to that trillion no one can ever grasp. It seems we are on our way some days. The benefits for everyone on earth will be pretty easy to get, if not the scale of it all.


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