Jul 21, 2020 - Science

Space's big year is being blunted

Illustration of gloved hand holding down a space rocket

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

This was supposed to be the year for the space industry, but the ambitious plans of companies and agencies are threatened by the pandemic and its economic fallout, exacerbating the growing pains of a promising industry.

Why it matters: The U.S. has historically dominated the global space industry, which some have projected could be worth up to $1 trillion by 2040. Delays and setbacks can come at a huge cost — both financially and symbolically — in the global space race.

What's happening: The industry has put up some solid wins this year — like SpaceX's first crewed launch to the International Space Station and the UAE's launch of it first Mars mission — despite the pandemic. And Earth-observing satellite companies are aiding in coronavirus relief efforts.

  • The work of many rocket companies and government contractors has also been deemed essential due to national security concerns, keeping many in the industry in business through shutdowns caused by the pandemic.

Yes, but: Boeing was also expected to get astronauts to the launch pad this year, though that's looking increasingly less likely after a troubled uncrewed test flight left the company with a series of fixes it needs to implement ahead of redoing its uncrewed test.

  • Since the U.S. government's redundancy in space depends on both SpaceX and Boeing having the capability to launch astronauts, the delay represents a broader setback.
  • A company spokesperson says that Boeing is "successfully managing" the challenges of the pandemic and is making progress toward repeating the test.
  • OneWeb, a company that had been working to create a constellation of internet-beaming satellites, declared bankruptcy in part due to the pandemic and its inability to fundraise because of it.
  • Virgin Orbit's first test flight ended in failure this year, and the company has been working to aid in the pandemic response, retasking some of its employees to build ventilators that can be used in emergencies.

Between the lines: A new Space Capital report released Monday shows that venture capital investment in the space industry actually increased about 4% in the first half of 2020, by comparison to the first half of 2019. Total investment in the industry in the second quarter of 2020 is down by 23% compared to the same time last year.

  • The parts of the industry that did see major investment largely centered around applications — like uses for GPS and the Internet of Things.
  • Space infrastructure — which includes satellite and rocket manufacturing — saw a steep 85% decline in investment from the first quarter to the second quarter of the year.
  • Government contracts also helped space companies continue their work, and it remains to be seen how long that kind of assistance will continue.
  • The up-and-comers predicted to drive growth in the industry are being most impacted.
"In downturns and times of uncertainty, companies with high capital requirements and long development timelines before they reach revenue, are typically the fastest and hardest hit. This is true with space infrastructure."
— Chad Anderson, Space Capital managing partner, via email.

What to watch: Industry experts are going to keep a close eye on the November election and the federal budget to see exactly how NASA and other agencies will fare.

  • "[G]enerally the view is that technology and national defense are going to be on the agenda no matter who wins the election... But the implementation will certainly likely change depending on which administration we see in power," space industry analyst Carissa Christensen told Axios.
  • If President Trump does lose re-election, that could spell major changes for NASA's Artemis program back to the Moon. The agency was already facing an uphill battle to get a crewed launch to the lunar surface off the ground by 2024, and it's unclear whether a Biden administration would continue the program.
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