Space: "Science fact is more interesting than science fiction"

We catch-up with space social media specialist, Remco Timmermans, about space tourism and the new “commercial space race”

“It wasn’t until I got invited to attend a NASA Social event that I realised I could actually have a career in social media and space,” says Remco Timmermans – who describes himself on LinkedIn as Social Media Specialist for Space, Tourism and Events.

“I clearly remember meeting many of my social media friends for the first time, in a large tent at the Kennedy Space Center Press Site in 2011. It was a strange experience to actually sit face-to-face with people that I only knew from social media, where it feels as if you have known each other for a long time,” he adds.

Timmermans describes how space had been a childhood passion, but after he chose to pursue a business and IT career he lost touch with the community, until he got on social media.

“Growing up in the Netherlands space was always a faraway area, with only the Americans and Soviets launching things,” he says.

Yet the launch of the first Space Shuttle in 1981 “that I watched live on television with my parents – turned test pilots John Young and Bob Crippen into instant heroes. It marked the beginning of my passion for space and I followed every move of the STS-1 and STS-2 missions. Then Dutch TV dropped space coverage and I lost touch. When I finally met Bob Crippen at that NASA Social event for STS-135 things came full circle…”

In the years following the event Timmermans describes how he set out to learn about the space industry and began to attend many space and social media conferences. After one tweetup event at the International Space University he registered for its nine-week Space Studies Program summer school in 2013.

“This study was the finish of my complete re-education in a new field and the start of a new career on the crossroads of social media and space,” he says.


What is your view of the new commercial space race?

First of all, it is not a space race like the space race in the 1950’s and 60’s. It is also not at all commercial. It is the media that make it a race and it is the media that make it commercial. New companies like SpaceX [by Elon Musk] can grow because of public funding by their ‘customer’ NASA. In a way this is nothing new, as NASA always subcontracted much of the building of spacecraft to commercial companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The thing that is new however, is that NASA moved away from being involved in every screw and bolt and now basically purchase a capability. So instead of designing a spacecraft and outsourcing construction, they now simply require a certain mass to be taken to the International Space Station, where much of the financial and operational risk moves away from government to the supplier. With this less involved role of the government, the market opens up for competition, which is exactly what is happening now. Whoever can provide capability at the lowest cost will get the contracts.

This new position of the government marks a second shift in space exploration. Once the commercial capability has been established, the government can move further away from certain tasks in space. Much like the communication satellite industry did many years ago, governments get less and less involved in launching and operating Earth Observation satellites and even the International Space Station. The required technology has reached a point where other (commercial) operators can do the job better and cheaper. The frontier of human exploration has moved away from Earth orbit and now lies in deep space. This is where government agencies are shifting their attention, and money. There are planets to be explored and science to be done much further away from Earth.


Who do you think will win, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson or someone else entirely?

It is not a race. I think they will all win in their own respect. Branson and Bezos for now focus on suborbital space tourism, where Musk continues his focus on orbital and deep space launchers. The space tourism niche may be very small now, but has so much potential that it will allow more than two companies to make some good money. Besides, their approach is so different that people may want to ride on both of them.

Same goes for the launch business, where Musk now mostly competes with government or semi government organisations like ISRO [Indian Space Research Organisaton], Roscosmos [Russian Federal Space Agency], ULA [United Launch Alliance] and Arianespace. With a booming satellite industry, the demand for launch capacity will dramatically increase in the next decades, providing enough business to whoever can offer it at acceptable (decreasing) prices. And then we haven’t mentioned the satellite business, where miniaturization is creating an entirely new commercial space niche. There is room for many more entrepreneurs!


How long do you think before space tourism is normal?

Depends on what you consider normal. We have had several space tourists on board the International Space Station already, so the top of the market is already being served. I think we will soon see another media boom once Virgin Galactic and XCOR fly their first paying passengers. Depending on how quickly they will develop their product, how costs will decrease, and how safe its first years will be, we will see a steady growth of people going on seven-minute suborbital parabolic joyrides. I see the thrill of that rather quickly fading though. Only when this evolves into suborbital, hypersonic point-to-point travel this will become a ‘normal’ market. At that point it probably won’t be considered space travel, but rather a top end aviation product.

Real space tourism, comparable to expensive trips to the ISS, is still in the ideas phase. After the attempt by a group of investors to turn the Mir space station into a hotel – see Orphans of Apollo – not too much has happened. The only organization developing products in this area is Bigelow Aerospace, which is building inflatable habitat units for multiple purposes, including space tourism. A first test module will be launched and connected to the International Space Station this year. When proven successful I can see investors getting together for a second attempt to construct a hotel in Earth orbit.

So when will space tourism be normal? I expect suborbital flights to become relatively normal within the next five years. The first substantial orbital tourism, other than celebrities flying to the International Space Station, probably won’t happen until at least 2025. And if you are thinking sightseeing tourist trips to the Moon or Mars… That will remain science fiction for a very long time.


What do you think most ordinary people fail to understand about space travel?

People fail to see the importance of space exploration for the long term future of humankind. People cannot handle the very long-term objectives in space, being so used to focus on short term political or monetary gain. Space is the answer to most questions about long term sustainability, in a world where people, supported by media, politics and corporate strategy, are so focused on the very short term. People want results now, not in 2040.

Another big misconception is that of cost. People see rockets launch into a gaping void where money disappears into the vacuum of space. However, all money spent in space exploration – which is much less than popular belief – is spent on Earth. All money is spent on paying the best scientists, high tech engineers, technicians and tens of thousands support staff that develop hardware and software that directly benefits society on Earth now. Research shows that every dollar or Euro invested in space by governments or private investors, comes back to society by a factor of three to ten. You cannot spend money on the Moon. You can only spend it here on Earth.


Has anything surprised you through your conversations about the future of space travel with clients?

There are many things that positively surprised me when getting involved in the space sector. The passionate people and also the opportunity that space has for ambitious people. I always perceived working in space to be for the lucky few, limited to NASA and the Russian space programs, so I dismissed it for my own career. Only when I finally got involved again I realized how space is the perfect industry for ambitious and passionate professionals. Not just for aerospace engineers or astrophysicists, but also for lawyers, policy makers, communicators, marketers and really every other profession imaginable.


Do you think sci-fi is finally coming true? If so, who do you think has the closest idea of the future?

The one thing that I found in space is that science fact is so much more interesting than science fiction. I know that science fiction is a great source of inspiration for many, especially in the space industry, but reality has even more to offer and is even more inspiring.

And the future? At the International Space University I learned that there are innumerate possible futures. The future that we will get fully depends on decisions we make today and tomorrow. The future cannot be predicted. Not by Star Trek, not by Interstellar and not by Star Wars. All I know is that the future depends on actions that we take today and that the people in the space industry are all working on a great future for all humankind, on and off this planet.

What are your own personal ambitions for space travel?

I have no ambitions at all. Sorry to disappoint you. I had the privilege to fly an experiment on board the European Zero-G plane about a year ago, so I got to experience a total of over 12 minutes in weightlessness. My brain loved every second of it, my stomach didn’t like the 31 parabolas of 22 seconds each.

You know, it is not the rockets or faraway places that attract me to the space industry. It is the people that share a very strong passion. The space business is a leading example of international cooperation and shared objectives. Space is not a big business, so people are driven by things other than money. There is no sector where you will meet so many motivated and collaborative – and nice – people as in space.