2019 was a packed year for commercial space and space startups, but 2020 isn’t likely to see any kind of slowdown. In fact, it’s going to get a lot busier in a few key ways that could have the effect of driving even more enthusiasm, energy and funding into the emerging space tech industry.
The biggest thing happening in space next year is easy to pick out already: NASA’s Commercial Crew program. Both of the partners the agency selected to work with it on returning human launch capabilities to American soil, Boeing and SpaceX, are in the process of accomplishing the last key things they need to get done before actually putting astronauts on board their spacecraft, and it seems very likely that 2020 is when we’ll finally see those missions fly.
Here’s a breakdown of that and other things to watch for 2020 in space tech that will define the industry, and determine whether it continues to be a hotbed of investment and activity, or whether it slows in terms of VC and startup interest.
Like I said, the commercial crew program will be the single most important thing to watch in 2020 in terms of the space industry. That’s not because SpaceX and Boeing/ULA gaining the ability to launch astronauts on behalf of NASA will directly open up opportunities for startups and entrepreneurs: It’s not likely going to, in fact.
Instead, actually successful crew flights from commercial space companies will see as a broad confidence booster and a sign that the infrastructure required for a true space-based startup boom is proceeding apace. Commercial crew flights are primarily intended to give the U.S. a key strategic capability in the global space technology space, but they also open up a new, continuous revenue stream for the larger and more established companies in this ecosystem – Boeing and SpaceX for now, with the potential to open it up even further.
Having two companies with spacecraft certified for human flight in the U.S. will mean those players have more revenue and available capital to re-invest in the ecosystem, including through partners and suppliers, and it also potentially means that private commercial astronauts will have more opportunity to take a ride and embark on missions for commercial research, experimentation and development in space.
NASA anticipates the ISS continuing to operate for quite a while, despite being already past its original intended mission lifespan. There’s a proposal to extend its life to 2030 on the table, in fact, and that will probably mean plenty more opportunity for private and commercial research and experimentation conducted on board – possibly even supported by additional commercial service modules that append to the orbital platform.
Closely related to crew flights, but quite different in terms of their potential impact on the sector, are the various attempts at making commercial space tourism a reality. This year, we saw Virgin Galactic go public in an interesting arrangement with a funding vehicle established for the purpose by former VC Chamath Palihapitiya, and the Branson-founded spaceflight company aims to begin ferrying tourists willing to pay $250,000 per ticket to the edge of space starting next year.
Meanwhile, Blue Origin continues its progress towards rating the Bezos-led company’s New Shepard spacecraft for human flight, also with the aim of transporting paying tourists. Blue Origin is looking at next year for the first flights with actual people on board, and hasn’t yet disclosed pricing for paying passengers, but has said it’ll be in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” range, according to CEO Bob Smith who spoke at our TechCrunch Disrupt conference in October.
Space tourism is another key revenue unlock for more established space companies, and something that could open up additional opportunities for startups depending on how it’s received by the market. Launch startups are essentially reliant on satellite customers for their entire business model, and while demand in that area only seems to be growing, if there ends up being a healthy market for space tourism with growth potential, new entrants with new models could expand the nature and variety of startups we see founded and funded.
Technology has massively improved the quality and capabilities of Earth observation and communication satellites, which is what many of the startups of the past half-decade have focused on in their drive to build new types of small satellites and constellations. Component miniaturization, driven by consumer electronics, combined with new, dramatically reduced cost models for both satellite construction and launching made all of this possible.
Forthcoming developments in in-space robotics has the potential to be yet another sea change moment in this vein, unlocking entirely new business possibilities for new and emerging companies. This category includes things like in-space manufacturing (Made in Space is one to watch here), in-space satellite servicing and capability upgrades (legacy player Maxar and newcomers like Orbit Fab), and potentially even establishing orbital platforms and way stations (Sierra Nevada Corporation is developing something that can potentially do this).
Building and retrofitting things in space can massively change the cost curve of operating in space: Most of the constraints of size, and by extension power and sensor/compute capability on commercial spacecraft today come down to launch restrictions: Large equipment is cost-prohibitive to get from Earth to space, and some devices or designs that would work well in zero gravity just can’t be built in such a way that they’d survive a launch intact.
If you can build in space, you multiply by an order of magnitude the range of potential things you can create. And if you can retrofit existing satellites, and potentially salvage materials from existing but now disused orbital spacecraft, then you can save a whole lot of money on new infrastructure and supplies. All of this contributes to increased opportunity for young companies with a need to keep burn rates in mind.
SpaceX should make a lot of progress on its next launch vehicle, if it holds to even half the optimistic projections its made about the spacecraft and its prototype development process. This is another one to watch not necessarily because of its immediate impact, but because of what it means to the future of the space industry – and the timeline on which that future comes about.
Starship is designed to ultimately replace both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy for SpaceX, with a fully reusable spacecraft and booster combo that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk hopes will deliver cost efficiencies that ultimately result in expenditures of only around $2 million per launch. Combined with the considerable onboard cargo capacity that Starship provides, and the planned frequency/ability to reach Mars and beyond, Starship could be a vehicle that opens the door wide open to affordable, frequent launches, not only to Earth orbit but also to deeper space destinations.
Again, that end state isn’t what we’ll get in 2020, but depending on how much progress Musk and SpaceX make on Starship’s development next year, we’ll know whether making any big bets on $2 million (and realistically much less thanks to rideshare cargo missions) is a smart move in any relatively short-term timeframe.
NASA’s Artemis program is its ambitious, multi-mission journey spanning multiple years that will ultimately return humans to the surface of the Moon, in 2024 if all goes to current timelines. The Artemis program is a huge, expensive endeavor that will mostly benefit NASA’s largest commercial partners, including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and more.
That still leaves a lot of opportunity on the table for smaller companies and tech startups, however. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told me at a press event this fall that it’s going to be working with commercial partners on all aspects of Artemis, from the Lunar Gateway (an orbital station at the Moon which will be a staging ground for Moon surface and Mars missions.
This includes work with startups, a number of which are already signed up to bid on lunar lander contracts to deliver cargo to the Moon in order to prepare the way for long-term human colonization. The scale of Artemis as a whole, especially when you consider that it could easily extend beyond the 2024 landing and into repeat Moon and lunar orbit activity, will produce all kinds of unique needs in terms of new technology, and technology done better, cheaper and smarter than is currently available on the market.
The space (marketing) race
One area that seems likely to experience growth is decidedly terrestrial: Marketing. The original space boom in the 1950s and 60s led to a huge run on brand association with space and space exploration. This time around, the desire to be perceived as part of the commercial space boom and renewed exploration efforts seems to be slower to start.
That doesn’t mean it won’t catch on, however: Japanese lunar lander and robotics startup ispace told me it’s not had trouble in locking down commercial partners, including a ‘who’s who’ of large, deep-pocketed and well-respected Japanese brands, across industrial verticals through consumer goods.
Brokering these partnerships; finding new ways that moneyed established brands can participate; directing more mainstream ad dollars to space as it continues to capture the imagination and attention of the general public once again.
It’s still an infrastructure play
Ultimately, the space industry presents opportunity for a handful of different kinds of early companies that can productize what already exists, but Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos generally had the right idea when he talked about the state of the industry earlier this year at Amazon’s re:Mars event:
“You cannot start an interesting space company today from your dorm room. The price of admission is too high and the reason for that is that the infrastructure doesn’t exist,” Bezos said at the time. “So my mission with Blue Origin is to help build that infrastructure, that heavy lifting infrastructure that future generations will be able to stand on top of the same way I stood on top of the U.S. Postal Service and so on.”
Bezos is right, but there’s a bit of an unspoken ‘I’ll do this now so let me do it and build your startups later’ implied that should probably be ignored. Building infrastructure is a complex, tremendous endeavor: One that requires an incredible amount of partnerships, suppliers and fundamental innovation to succeed. You may not be able to build the Amazon of the space age now as a startup, but you can build the Fairchild or the IBM.