When Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon in 1969, half a billion people were watching. To date, only twelve people have walked on its surface, and some 540 people have been to space. But we are on the cusp of change, according to Karin Nilsdotter, CEO for Spaceport Sweden. New innovations and a new breed of Astropreneurs means that space is no longer in the domain of governments only. The sky is no longer the limit.
“Like space, the opportunities are endless,“ said Nilsdotter in her Ted Talk in Berlin, October 2014 .
And according to Nilsdotter, we are at an exciting time in the history of space travel. The Space Industry today has a global turnover of $300bn. It is forecasted to reach $600bn within the next 12 years. Space is being democratized – accessible to you and me - and fuelled by investment from the private sector. Game changing new technology at a lower cost will eventually lead to more people gaining access to space. And this is a good thing, she says. Looking at history, the human race have proved themselves to be born explorers, according to Nilsdotter, and space exploration is critical to the advancement of the human race.
“Space has always been a platform for research and development. We need to learn more about our environment, where we come from and where we are going and how we can solve the challenges that we face on Earth,“ she tells The LINK.
Born in Skövde, west Sweden, Nilsdotter grew up in an entrepreneurial setting. During her upbringing the family lived both in Switzerland and in Sweden, and while in high school she spent a term studying in the US.
“I always felt international and I always knew I wanted to work internationally”, she says.
After higher studies resulting in a business management degree, she studied both in Sweden and in the UK, and ultimately landed a job with Visit Sweden, where she worked with among other things strategic relationships, branding and communications. She also did an executive MBA. But her interest in innovation and technological advances was always present.
“I think I have always been interested in new technology and I am a very curious person in general. During my studies I did a project on space travel and how the industry is changing - how space is becoming a work place like any other,” she tells The LINK.
Because of her interest in the sector she was following the development of the industry: the birth of Virgin Galactic based here in London but also an early initiative in Sweden, called Spaceport Sweden, based in Kiruna, near the Arctic circle. When the latter reached out to her to enquire whether she would be willing to head up the venture in Sweden, it was a heartbeat decision to say yes. It also meant that she had come full circle.
“In my role I can capitalise on my understanding of the tech but also, as we are in a developing phase, it is a broad stakeholder group and engagement and my background makes me at ease with many different stakeholders, whether they are politicians, in business or in academia – on a national or international level,” she says.
According to Nilsdotter, Spaceport Sweden was the first initiative outside of the US. Today, it has the ambition to be Europe’s gateway to space and to realise the potential and dream of space travel.
“We want to supply services and infrastructure to companies and academia but also space adventurers, space preparation for future space travellers or professionals that are going into space, like scientists and researchers. Also we want to provide astronaut training for specific missions.”
But they also want to be catalyst for innovation and new type of partnerships - to encourage new types of experiences of products and services.
“It’s not just about launching people into space, but also about launching new products and services – creating a whole new industry.”
And to achieve this, they need the best of the best.
“This is an industry for everyone, because of course we are going to need the best within each discipline. It is about talent not about gender, colour or background. From space, you don’t see any borders or differences between people.”
It’s perhaps not surprising then that Nilsdotter speaks of the International Space Station (ISS), which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary, as a large laboratory in the sky. But more so, she sees it as one of humanity’s greatest achievements, with 15 nations working together with one aim, and a focus on excellence and dynamic teamwork rather than race, gender, beliefs or mobility.
“Space is set to be the greatest challenge of all, attracting the brightest minds, who have the courage to believe something greater than ourselves“, Nilsdotter said in her TED talk, urging the audience to dare to dream.
Since the very beginning of our space capabilities, we have used space as a platform to test new technology and to do critical research. Many of the things that have been tested and developed through space research are things we depend on in our everyday life.
“We already use satellites for communication, navigation and forecasting the weather, and to monitor natural disasters or even large movements of people, like in the case of the refugee crisis.”
A thriving space industry could mean benefits not just to space travel or research but to everyday life in Sweden. Already cutting edge in sustainability and green thinking, we would be able to accelerate the speed at which we see technology from space being implemented into other industries, for example to create more environmentally friendly buildings, materials, gas or fuels. And Nilsdotter points out that there are many innovations that would translate from space to other areas.
One such is the Orbital Systems space shower, which recycles water while you wash, ultimately saving 90% in water usage and 80% in energy for every shower. A Swedish invention, developed to be used in space, the purification technology could on a bigger scale be used in the world’s developing countries, where water-related illness is common.
The space industry also creates job opportunities in remote areas, being able to capitalise on conditions that might be off-putting to other industries. Spaceport Sweden and the space industry have so far contributed to a rocket launch site, a research institute, a university and a space high school.
Nilsdotter is hoping that the relationship we have to space will be completely transformed over the next few decades. Space, she argues, is becoming more in the public eye and we learn increasingly more about our external environment. Ultimately, becoming more aware of our position as humans on a planet in space, we need to start asking ourselves important questions about our dwindling resources and the need for cross border collaboration and eventually going further to find an alternative.
Today, Sweden is at the forefront when it comes to research and the development of technologies and applications. With a turnover of SEK2bn, The Swedish Space Industry has the potential to grow.
“We may be a small nation but we have a big footprint,” Nilsdotter tells The LINK.
But our leading position is also due to being able to turn what in other circumstances might be considered as geographical challenges, vast sparsely populated areas, into assets. For the space industry it is vital to have access to space, to be able to conduct experiments safely.
“We have built on our capabilities and assets to develop a good lead and a forefront position in this industry. But new technologies, changes in policy and other countries prioritising space, means that competition is increasing rapidly. The challenge for Sweden now is to maintain what we have and build on that and also grow with the industry which I think means that we need to think even more commercially, which will create business opportunities. I think we can attract both new companies but also talent in Sweden to be part of this new industry.”
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