By Rebecca Gran
SpaceX just launched ten Iridium Communications satellites into low-Earth orbit. These satellites will beam phone and data service to tens of thousands of Americans who live or work in areas too remote for regular coverage.
Until recently, blasting bus-sized satellites into space using rockets that can be reused belonged in the realm of science fiction. Now, such activities seem routine.
Policymakers should take note. Americans are set to reap the benefits of aerospace firms’ race to tame the Final Frontier — and the industry’s investments in manufacturing will create new jobs and wealth in the United States, not just shuffle around current jobs by moving around government dollars.
Since its inception, the aerospace industry has produced technologies that improve Americans’ quality of life. NASA helped invent memory foam, scratch-resistant glasses, insulin pumps and hundreds of other products we use every day.
Now, private companies are driving aerospace innovation. Thanks to satellite Internet firms, airplane passengers can enjoy Wi-Fi while cruising at 30,000 feet. That has made flying more enjoyable — and far more productive. The technology also makes it possible for Americans in remote areas to access high-speed Internet.
Satellite internet has yet to reach its full potential. The satellite “internet of things” market is expected to grow nearly 20 percent each year through 2022. Improved connectivity — made possible by new satellites — will improve the efficiency of a wide range of appliances, not just computers and smartphones.
Launching new satellites to support this increased connectivity would have been far too expensive a few years ago. But today, thanks to California-based SpaceX and Washington-based Blue Origin’s advances in rocket manufacturing, the cost of launches has plummeted. The Air Force is showing interest in ultra-low cost access to space, where reusable launch technologies stimulate tactical innovation in space operations.
Next-generation rockets have even made space-based businesses look viable.
Made in Space, a California startup, recently sent a 3D printer to the International Space Station, laying the groundwork for manufacturing in zero gravity. The firm plans to produce optical fiber in space, which would eliminate the microscopic imperfections caused by gravity. This high quality fiber could revolutionize everything from medical devices to telecommunications.
Aerospace firms aren’t just spurring technological progress; they’re supporting millions of jobs. America’s aerospace sector employs over 1.2 million people and indirectly supports an additional 3.2 million jobs.
These jobs are helping to replace losses we’ve seen in the broader manufacturing sector. While the number of overall American manufacturing jobs dropped 22 percent from 2002 to 2012, jobs in the aerospace industry grew 7 percent. Aerospace exports also generated a trade surplus of over $80 billion in 2015 — the highest in the manufacturing sector.
Aerospace companies are even leading the charge to revitalize the manufacturing workforce.
Firms are designing their own educational programs, often at community colleges, to train workers. Northrop Grumman, for instance, has partnered with Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, California to create a sixteen-week vocational program in aircraft manufacturing. The firm recruits many of the students upon graduation. Such public-private partnerships could serve as a model for manufacturers in other sectors.
Private aerospace companies are strengthening the labor force and pouring billions of dollars into new technologies that will improve Americans lives. That’s a reason to cheer every liftoff.
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Rebecca Grant, Ph.D., is president of IRIS Independent Research, a public-policy research organization, and director of the Washington Security Forum. She is the former director of the General Billy Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies at the Air Force Association.