As launch market matures, space opportunities on the ground take off

The space economy in the last few years has been in large part driven by the increasing cadence and reliability of launch services, and while that market will continue to grow, the new economy enabled by those launches is only just beginning to take off. If you thought the launch boom was big, just wait for when it combines with the private satellite boom.

The consensus among experts, company leadership and investors in the space sector is that launch has commanded an outsize share of both money and attention, both because it’s so broadly appealing and because it was a prerequisite to any kind of space-based economy.

If you thought the launch boom was big, just wait for when it combines with the private satellite boom.

But as we’ve seen over the last year, and as is expected to be further demonstrated in 2021, the launch industry is moving from investor-subsidized R&D and testing to a full-fledged service economy.

“To date the launch industry has received 47% of the industry’s venture capital, even though it’s less than 2% of the global space economy,” said Meagan Crawford, managing partner at SpaceFund, at TC Sessions: Space last week. “We feel like that’s a problem that’s been solved, or that’s being solved. What we want to know is what is enabled by launch, right? What are the new things that can happen now, the new business models that close today that didn’t close three years ago when launch was not as frequent, reliable and low cost?”

Within the launch industry this view seems to be shared, even at companies that have yet to take a payload to orbit. Their focus is not just on proving their launch vehicle can do it, but taking their place in a massively supply-constrained (on the launch side) market by differentiating and appealing to new business models. That involves far more than building a working rocket.

“It’s not just about mass to orbit,” said Mandy Vaughn, president of VOX Space. “It’s about all those other elements of, how can we react quickly? How can we design and produce something quickly, as well as deploy that capability, maybe in a unique way from an unexpected location? In terms of the investment landscape, it’s not just about the technology of one rocket, or what’s your ISP [in-space propulsion] compared to another’s. It really is, what is the complete vertical infrastructure and business model beyond just mass to orbit?”

Tim Ellis, founder and CEO of Relativity Space, which will launch its first fully 3D-printed rocket in 2021, concurred in a conversation we had outside the conference.

“The thing we’re watching closest is not, while it’s fun, the different launch providers, but how many new satellite companies are getting to orbit,” he said. “We’re still seeing the market growing faster than the launch vehicle companies have been able to keep up with.”