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Iridium's CEO on SpaceX and the benefits of private space

The trickle-down ways SpaceX and the private space race could be good for you

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SpaceX, Silicon Valley’s most famous private rocket company, had its biggest weekend ever at the end of June when it blasted two satellite payloads into space in the span of three days.

Good for them, but why should you care, right?

Well, what if you learned that the success of Elon Musk’s rocket company, or even Jeff Bezos's for that matter, could impact how well your smartphone works and whether a moon vacation will soon be in your budget?

Matt Desch is the CEO of satellite communications company Iridium, SpaceX's largest customer. He explained to Circa that the private space race is driving innovation and lowering costs for companies that want to blast new and very useful tech into space.

"If the investment and activity comes to fruition for the tens of thousands of satellites people want to launch in the next 10 years, it could really lower the cost and improve the access to broadband kind of capabilities to people all around the planet," he said. "That isn’t going to happen unless you have lower cost platforms; SpaceX is the first, but they're inspiring others."

But why, specifically, is SpaceX cheaper to fly with? Earlier this year, it became the first rocket-maker to relaunch and land a used orbital rocket, which is a resource conservation scheme that Desch said is already cutting as much as half of the price it takes to blast all kinds of useful satellites to orbit when compared to the old guard of commodity-owned American, Russian or Chinese rocket companies.

Desch broke it down: "If we had to sit on a runway and knew that the 747 we were going to get into was only going to be used once, you'd bet that it would be very expensive to get on that that flight to Tokyo or Paris."

Iridium's satellite constellation. (Credit: Iridium)
Iridium's upgraded satellite constellation, called NEXT, will offer global communications coverage for things like airplane tracking and satellite phones. (Credit: Iridium)

Iridium is in the process of upgrading its constellation of satellites, which is the largest in Earth’s orbit. Its CEO said upcoming features to the Iridium network, like never-before-seen capabilities to track airplanes no matter where they are in the world, might not be affordable to add right now without the low cost to space that SpaceX is providing.

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The same could go for companies who might want to make the kind of smartphone you have in your pocket work just about anywhere on the planet. Desch, whose company supports a high-power satellite phone service, said the ideas for ways to provide global smartphone coverage by way of satellite are out there.

"It actually is the vision of some startups. People don’t appreciate that cell towers only cover about 10% of the Earth’s surface … and we’re roaming across the planet like we never have before."

And even further than making it cheaper to rocket useful satellites into space, a disruption of the space delivery industry should make it cheaper to rocket you up there, too.

"Space tourism is opening up, I think we’re going to start seeing more people out there if it can become more cost-effective," said Desch.

When asked if he'd be interested in taking in a cost-effective orbital tour in the future, the satellite CEO smiled.

"I don’t know very many people who didn’t grow up looking to the skies."

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