Nov 24, 2020 - Science

Space is outgrowing its billionaires

Illustration of a hand placing a quarter into the moon

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The space industry is outgrowing the billionaires who made it famous.

Why it matters: Billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson helped put the space industry on the map, but today, a significant amount of growth seen in the industry is propelled by smaller companies.

  • The narrative that the space industry is a place for the ultra-rich to throw some money around for fun is now being supplanted by the idea that space is a place for a variety of investors and companies to strike it rich.
  • "The industry has really evolved quite a bit," Eric Stallmer of Voyager Space Holdings told me. "I don't think it's a billionaire's game anymore."

Driving the news: SpaceX's recent crewed flight was hailed as an American moment, not a personal win for its founder, a sign that these companies are becoming more important than their billionaire backers.

  • Virgin Galactic's public offering, for example, is expected to be a harbinger of more space companies going public soon.

Where it stands: Seeing the industry as a playground for Musk, Bezos, Branson and others helped spark public and investor interest in the sector. But today, billions of dollars are being invested into a variety of companies from many sources.

  • In 2019, nearly 1,000 unique investors put about $5.7 billion into space industry startups, according to a report from Bryce Space and Technology.
  • While Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic account for more than $2 billion of that investment, 135 total startups received funding last year, amounting to a 34% increase over 2018.
  • According to an October report from Space Capital, 53 companies received investment in the third quarter of 2020.
  • The space industry could be worth up to $1 trillion by 2040, according to a Morgan Stanley estimate, and that kind of growth depends on smaller companies continuing to get investment.

Between the lines: Industry experts see the fact that venture investors are now investing in the space industry in large numbers as meaningful growth for a sector that's still working to prove itself.

  • "What they [the billionaires] have done is created such a buzz that commercial space is a viable, profitable, growing, evolving ... industry, and you're seeing just a lot of mainstream investors coming in," Stallmer said.

Yes, but: Bezos, Musk and Branson are still a stabilizing force for investors who might be looking to get into the space industry, but are wary of the high up-front costs many of these companies have to take on just to get off the ground.

  • "It brought visibility to space deals and it brought a degree of legitimacy to space deals, because even though Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos are visionary investors, I don't think anybody thinks they're stupid investors," Carissa Christensen of Bryce Space and Technology told me.

The upstart companies working on a shoestring are also likely to face challenges that may not plague the companies founded by billionaires.

  • For example, some experts are concerned that small rocket companies are facing a bubble, with hundreds of possible companies aiming to send small satellites to orbit but not enough demand to support all those rockets.
  • Smaller companies may have a harder time breaking through that bubble, while others with extremely wealthy and patient backers might be able to come out on top.
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