empire1

Commercial property development has always been a risky business. Once a building has leapt skywards little can be done if it’s the wrong thing in the wrong place.

Space technology is too exciting; we have to bring ourselves back to earth (so to speak). Satellites are really just tall structures. 98% of space revenue comes from tall TV masts. Global navigation is possible because of tall GPS masts. Earth observation satellites are CCTV cameras on poles.

Yet at Satellite 2016 last week in Washington DC you would have thought that the satellite chaps were unique in having to take a gamble on the size, shape and location of the structures they were planning.

Their answer: flexibility. Digital payloads and movable spot-beams will make the space business cock-up proof. Like putting the Empire State Building on wheels. The right structure in the right place guaranteed.

Dream on. Any big project involves a gamble. You cannot build a business case for a bridge across an estuary by counting the number of people swimming across.

History has shown us that big projects are triggered by anything but a business case. For Galileo it was sovereignty. India has just launched its sixth navigation satellite for the same reason. For “new space” and space tourism it is…. vanity? For scientific missions…. philosophy?.

Maybe we’ve fallen in love with services and have forgotten the big building decisions that made them possible. GPS is not an app but 40 years of planning, building and launching. Governments will need to play a part too. Getting it right needs bravery and is hard work. End-to-end thinking is essential; a silo mentality is a guarantee of failure.

So space is not facing a crisis. A change of heart is needed. Maybe Galileo was just ahead of its time. And successes are successes whether or not the underlying assumptions were right or wrong. Serendipity?