PODCAST: The Business of Space

Bellarmine on Business Podcast

Episode 13: In today’s episode, host Jim Ray interviews Dr. Mike H. Ryan, Professor of Management and Rubel’s Associate Dean, who also has an extensive background in space-related topics.  As private sector activity ramps up, there’s a tremendous future available to us.  Join us for an interesting conversation about the business of space.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX recently took 4 civilians into space for the first time. Other high-profile companies such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are also making inroads in to space exploration. 

Growing up, Dr. Ryan assumed he might actually take a job in space.  As the space race heated up with Sputnik and our mission to the moon, it was hard for him to imagine we wouldn’t go back to the moon during the next 50 years.  He spent time in the US Air Force, before returning to school.  He completed his Master’s and PhD.  Currently, he’s one of the few professors in the US who does research on “space business.”

Dr. Ryan is personally acquainted with Max Faget and also astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. He’s written numerous books and 75-100 publications and has given an extensive number of presentations, generally involving some aspect of space.



Space – It’s Just a Place

The idea of working in space can seem intimidating to many.  It all seems so complex, even though we are much less intimidated with the idea of working in the oceans.  Dr. Ryan explains that it shouldn’t be so difficult to conceptualize.  After all, it’s just a place.

If you think about it, the distance it would take to fly from Louisville to Australia on business (9,963 miles) is actually farther than the distance from earth to the international space station (only 254 miles).


Everything in space is about getting from point A to point B.  Rockets are a primary mode of transportation.  As our technology evolved, we transferred from rockets to the space shuttle.  Over time, the shuttles became less reliable, so we moved back to travel via rockets.  Unfortunately, we had not kept up the investment in this mode, so we relied on rockets from other countries (i.e. Russia).

Dr. Ryan firmly believes there are many other ways in which we could utilize rocket technology, beyond simply putting satellites into space.  There are plenty of opportunities for people to work in space, as well.  One of the challenge is making the trip and return trip feasible.  Reusability is a key consideration.  SpaceX and Blue Origin are proving that reusability is absolutely possible.

Over time, reusability reduces the cost of putting people and equipment into space.  This opens up the possibility of more frequent visits.  The opportunities stretch as far as you can imagine.

Rocket propellant (“fuel”) is actually cheaper than people might imagine.  It’s primarily liquid hydrogen and/or liquid oxygen.  Both of those are components of water.  There may be other options which we could develop to replace liquid rocket fuel.

Dr. Ryan discusses how a “space plane” could be extremely advantageous vs. the rockets we know today.  Reusability combined with the ability to take off and land from a variety of locations would reduce the cost of going to low-earth orbit and potentially further.

Mining in Space

Rare elements, minerals and even water are abundant in space.  We think about the moon, but also consider asteroids and even Mars.  If we can figure out how to maintain supply levels, we could put many more people into space for an extended period of time.  Dr. Ryan discusses how something called a “mass driver” working on an electromagnetic rail system could eliminate the need for rocket fuel to get material into low-earth orbit.  The mass driver could launch a payload into orbit.  This would provide those supply levels, which could then be used for a variety of purposes and destinations. 

Dr. Ryan explains that many minerals are extremely abundant in asteroids.  He explains that a nickel-iron asteroid the size of UofL’s Cardinal Stadium would provide enough iron ore for approximately 100 years.  Many asteroids are composed of water.  These could also be captured and brought to earth.  The opportunities are simply amazing, if we can figure out how to do it economically and efficiently.

Solar power satellites could be deployed to beam down a constant source of solar energy to provide extremely inexpensive power to specific locations.  In expensive electric power could also facilitate the conversion of sea water to fresh water for food growth and sanitation.


There are approximately 10,000 satellites currently in orbit.  There are a couple hundred thousand pieces of space debris.  People are already researching how best to deal with the debris.

We are currently building constellations of satellites.  Elon Musk’s team is focusing on communication satellites for cell phones and data.  This could dramatically increase speed and availability. 

Roadblocks to Commercializing Space

Interestingly, one of the initial roadblocks has to do with treaties sign by and among countries because, at the time, we really didn’t understand the vast opportunities available in space.  We simple couldn’t imagine it would one day be possible.

During the next 5, 10 or 50 years, our ability to begin harnessing space opportunities will increase exponentially.  We’ll need to find the best way to replace those treaties with some other type of infrastructure.

Because of the sheer size of the earth, the gravity well exerts tremendous pull.  Escaping this pull and getting into space adds tremendous cost for our current technologies.  If we could figure out how to manufacture in space, theoretically, we could reach much further into space at a more economic level. 

The Impact of Space on Kentucky’s Economy

Kentucky’s number one export is space-related aerospace products.  Yes, it outpaces bourbon.  We export $12-$13 billion in goods, which helps to maintain 19,000 Kentucky jobs among over 600 companies. 

Kentucky is #2 in the country for aerospace export. 

There’s a company called Space Tango, located in Lexington, with its own testing facility on the international space station. 

Where Are We Going from Here?

Dr. Ryan concludes the episode with these comments.  In 5 years, we may have commercial space stations.  Eventually, we’ll have a much larger commercial space station.  Within 15 years, Dr. Ryan sees us having a permanent lunar base.  In 20-25 years, we could have a commercial, lunar base.  Transportation breakthroughs will determine the pace of these advancements. 


The views and opinions expressed during the Bellarmine on Business podcast do not necessarily reflect those of Bellarmine University, its administration or the faculty at large.  The episodes are designed to be insightful, thought-provoking and entertaining.

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