Investing in Space Travel

Two Contracts Awarded for Mission to Mars

By Jason Stutman   

"From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, 'Look at that, you son of a bitch.'"

These words were spoken by Lunar Module pilot Edgar Mitchell, following the Apollo 14 moon landing. Along with Commander Alan Shepard, Mitchell spent a record 33 hours and 31 minutes on the surface of the moon. It was an experience that would change him forever.

What happened to Mitchell is known as the overview effect.

This is a phenomenon experienced by many astronauts when viewing Earth from above. From up there, national boundaries disappear, conflicts become incredibly petty, and the fragile reality of our existence is realized.

From the surface, it's difficult for us to conceive; but the truth is we're living on a tiny oasis — a living spaceship floating in the vastness of harsh space.

Many astronauts have returned to Earth with completely new perspectives on society and religion. Some have returned home to become political activists. Others have found reason to convert from atheists to believers. Most commonly, though, these people begin to place a high importance on global unity and the preservation of planet Earth.

Of course, all of that is easier said than done. A difference in perspective won't save the world alone. Without drastic and widespread action wars will still rage, energy crises will continue, and economic burdens will threaten global stability.

As much as I prefer not to participate in any kind of doom-and-gloom rhetoric, there's no denying the inevitable: One day, this planet will no longer be our safe haven.

Now, I'm not going to tell you this will happen tomorrow, next year, or even in our lifetimes...

I will tell you that people will begin to flee Earth within the next 10 to 12 years. These people will be among the first humans to colonize another planet. They will never return home. And like the explorers of the 15th century, they will change history forever.

Perhaps more importantly, this new age of space exploration will bring many of us new levels of wealth and prosperity, much in the way the Colonial era once brought profits to the people of Western Europe.

We'll talk a little about that in just a minute, but first let's look at an important development in the commercial space industry.

The Second Planet

Last week, the Mars One foundation revealed its plans for the first-ever private unmanned mission to Mars.

This marks the first step in the group's determined effort to colonize the Red Planet by 2025.

The mission is expected to launch in 2018 and will include a lander, robotics, solar panels, water-generating technology, and an orbiting communication satellite. Together these components will allow for communication to and from Mars and will primarily serve as proof of concept.

In 2020, a rover will be launched to pick out an ideal settlement location. As more cargo units are launched, multiple rovers will use their robotic arms to set up a fully operational outpost. By the time fully trained crews launch in 2024, the colony will have a breathable atmosphere, renewable energy, and plenty of water...

It will look a little something like this:

mars colony

If all this seems a bit far-fetched, believe me when I say I understand the sentiment. A self-supportive colony on the Red Planet is a tough sell, but we have the technology.

On top of that, human history has consistently proved naysayers wrong in these matters.

The fact is landing on Mars has already been accomplished many times over, and the success rate for missions to Mars has improved drastically over the past five decades.

Take a look at NASA's historical Mars mission log for the 1960s...

mars log 60s

And the mission log a few decades later:

mars log present

You'll likely be keen to note that the United States hasn't failed a single mission to Mars for over a decade. Our technology has been tried and tested, and there's little doubt left that we know what we're doing.

Not too surprisingly, when Mars One founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp told reporters the foundation has already inked two contracts for its 2018 mission, the vast majority of that financing went to American aerospace company Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT).

For $250,000 Lockheed will construct a lander based on its previously built 2007 Phoenix vessel featured in the historical log above. Of course, this is a drop in the bucket for Lockheed's massive $46 billion revenue stream, but it hints to a promising future for the company's role in commercial space travel.

The second contract was awarded to Surrey Satellite Technology, majority owned by Astrium, a subsidiary of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (OTC: EADSF). Surrey will develop mission concept studies with the eventual goal of construction and launch (the price tag: $60,000).

Again, this contract will have a trivial effect on the EAD's top line, but that's ultimately not what matters here. The key takeaway from all this is that we're sitting right on the cusp of a burgeoning industry...

Quite frankly, there's never been a better time to invest in commercial space.

Money from Mars

Despite continuous advancements in reliability, space travel will always remain a risky business. The commercial space industry will undoubtedly place its trust in companies with an established record of success and experience. This means a high barrier to entry and limited near-term competition from newcomers.

On November 4, I told readers about five space stocks, several of which have already established a strong footprint in the space industry.

I rated one of these in particular as an attractive buy.

The specific company is Astrotech Corp (NASDAQ: ASTC). It offers pre-launch services for a slew of space aerospace companies, including Orbital Sciences (NASDAW: ORB), Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC), and Lockheed Martin.

Astrotech shares have jumped nearly 35% since then, primarily as a result of a recent patent approval announcement.

There's still some upside here as the commercial space industry continues to gain traction, but it was a far better buy prior to the announcement...

While the launch industry is certainly exciting to talk about, the truth is it only accounts for ~3% of global space revenues. The heap of sales currently comes directly from the satellite industry.

Turning progress to profits,

  JS Sig

Jason Stutman

follow basic @JasonStutman on Twitter

Energy and Capital's tech expert, Jason Stutman has worked as an educator in mathematics, technology, and science... Before joining the Energy and Capital team, Jason served on multiple technology development committees, writing and earning grants in educational and behavioral technologies. Jason offers readers keen insights on prominent tech trends while exposing otherwise unnoticed opportunities.

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