Singularity University and the Space Global Grand Challenge

Darlene Damm
Apr 25, 2019

Space is one of Singularity University’s global grand challenges. In particular, we are striving to create a world with “safe and equitable use, and stewardship of space resources and technologies for the benefit of humanity and our future as a multi-planetary species.”Given this, one of the questions people most often ask us at Singularity University is, “Why is space one of our global grand challenges? After all, aren’t there more pressing problems here on Earth we should solve first?”As our Vice Chair of Global Grand Challenges, I answer this question in a few different ways. First, while it might not be obvious, we depend on several space-based technologies for our well-being every day. For example, over 2,000 satellites are currently used for television, telephone, radio, and government applications. As we send up more and more satellites with more sophisticated sensors that can work with new types of data and images, satellites are used for everything from improving agricultural outcomes to predicting the weather to managing global shipping logistics.Second, our exploration of space helps us innovate solutions that are useful on Earth. When we design a space suit, shelter, farm, or medical device that works in the extreme and resource-scarce environment of outer space, we can also use these solutions in extreme or resources-scare parts of the planet. Check out this list of technologies developed by NASA that also have Earth-based applications.Third, it is important to study space to ensure the long-term survival of our planet. While risks of asteroids hitting our planet or solar flares taking out our communications infrastructure might be rare, they are very serious problems if they do occur. A small effort now can pay off a great deal later if those threats actually materialize.Fourth, we have reached a moment in history, where humans are now ready to explore space and possibly settle off-planet. This will likely be a combined effort of sending humans and robots deeper into outer space and incorporating new types of tools that can conduct research from afar. By considering space a global grand challenge rather than simply a new industry or commercial opportunity, we are saying we need to think about this new endeavor with care.For example, how will governance, property rights, human rights, and conflict resolution work off-planet? How will these rights be enforced? Will a robotic presence count in the same way as a human presence? Should the people who are leading current commercial or governmental space expeditions also be the people who make the rules? Or should these questions be answered more broadly?While there is much to be done, our Singularity University Faculty, startups, and community are working on different aspects of the space global grand challenge, including several who have made this topic their life’s work.


SU Faculty have made space their life’s work

One of the most unique aspects of Singularity University, in addition to being situated at NASA Research Park, is that many of our Faculty and early team members are also pioneers of the commercial space industry. SU Executive Founder and Director, Dr. Peter Diamandis has spent much of his life launching the private space sector. His work includes efforts at both seeding the development of the commercial space industry as well building it out as it has matured. His career has thus far included forming Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, Rocket Racing League, Space Adventures, International Space University, Zero Gravity Corporation, the X PRIZE Foundation (and the initial Ansari X Prize which successfully challenged the world to create the first reusable private space vehicle for humans), Planetary Resources, and several health and life extension companies that complement human space exploration.In addition to Peter, our space Faculty includes Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American engineer and entrepreneur who was also the first female space tourist, was the initial financial sponsor of the Ansari X Prize, and is the current CEO of X PRIZE Foundation; Gregg Maryniak, who teaches about the space global grand challenge as well as the energy and environmental global grand challenges, was an associate founder of the International Space University, and co-founder of the X PRIZE Foundation; Naveen Jain, a business entrepreneur, SU board member, and founder of Moon Express; Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom, who played pivotal roles building out Space Adventures, the International Space University, and Singularity University, and is currently launching SpaceBase out of New Zealand; astronaut and entrepreneur Dr. Yvonne Cagle; SU alumnus and co-founder of Made In Space Jason Dunn; radio astronomer Melanie Johnston-Hollitt; explorer and long-time Silicon Valley expert Jonathan Knowles; astrobiologist Dr. Zita Martins; and speaker Dr. Pete Worden, former director of NASA Ames Research Center and Chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Initiative. Our Faculty are not only experts in their own space-related topics, but also a community that combines a passion for space exploration with building out the industry so that we can all participate in space exploration.


SU startups are working in some of the most exciting areas of space

As the space industry grows, we will be building out many of the industries that currently exist on Earth into the space environment as well as new sectors entirely. Our startups are leading the way in building these sub-industries and sectors ranging from the space-based manufacturing industries to laser-based space communications.Made In Space, created during our 2010 Global Solutions Program or GSP (now the Global Startup Program), realized that if we could put 3D printers and robots into space, we could also manufacture anything we needed in space rather than haul it back and forth via expensive rockets in missions that required months and sometimes years of planning. The company printed the first objects off-planet on the International Space Station in November 2014 and is now working on printing fiber optics cables (which are higher quality when printed in microgravity), large space structures, as well as making printers available to NASA and other customers to print objects in space on-demand. In 2015, Made In Space and SU corporate client Lowe’s, the Fortune 50 home improvement retailer, also opened the first hardware store in space (learn more about this in our case study).Morphoptic, an SU Portfolio Company, creates large-scale optical mirrors. These mirrors can be used in optical communication, remote sensing, research, the solar energy sector, and more.Hypercubes, also created during the GSP, is creating satellite sensors that can provide information about the health of the planet, especially in terms of solving environmental challenges.ArchAngel Light Networks, an SU Portfolio Company, is building out the space communication industry. The company is creating space-air laser communication terminals that allow laser communication systems to work around clouds, which is a current barrier to the laser communication industry.

Earth as seen from the space

Our community and moonshot thinking

Given Singularity University’s historic founding at NASA Research Park and the involvement of many of the world’s early private space pioneers, the space community and Singularity University overlap in many ways. The founders and team members of Moon Express, the International Space University, the X Prize Foundation, Planet Labs, and many other new space companies have interacted with Singularity University over the years as early team members and founders, faculty, speakers, mentors, collaborators, and more.One of the benefits of this close association with the space sector is that these experts have shared not only their knowledge about the space industry but also how to launch moonshots and how to work with exponential technologies to launch moonshots. Space exploration, with its challenging problems and high costs, provides a very clear use case for exponential technologies which rapidly improve in sophistication while falling in cost and help us forecast new technologies and capabilities to crack the industry. We have found that this approach can, of course, be applied to hard problems in any industry, including solving for other global grand challenges. In my opinion, this is what makes Singularity University different from so many other places—having worked on such hard problems at such a high level, we cannot ever go back. We know what is possible and we continue to challenge the world to work at higher and higher levels to the edges and beyond of what is possible.Are you working on something big that could change the face of space exploration forever? Take your moonshot startup to the next level at our Global Startup Program. Do you have any expertise to share? Begin a journey to become a member of our Faculty. Are you looking for opportunities to connect with like-minded explorers and solvers in your community? Find a local SingularityU Chapter. And join us this year at Singularity University Global Summit, our flagship event, to get the latest look at exponential technologies and discover innovative companies making great strides to solve our world’s most urgent problems.