Dec 22, 2020 - Science

The space industry comes of age

Illustration of a series of astronauts getting larger and wearing progressively better space suits, similar to the March of Progress illustration.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

2020 was the year the space industry started to prove itself — setting up big expectations for its maturity and growth in the coming year.

The big picture: From crewed commercial flights to startup space companies going public, this year — against the headwinds of a global pandemic — a maturing space industry emerged.

  • "2020 has been an improbable success," space analyst Chris Quilty told me.

Driving the news: There were about 39 licensed commercial launches in 2020, according to the Department of Transportation, surpassing 2018's record of 33.

  • SpaceX also made good on a promise years in the making by launching NASA astronauts to the International Space Station for the first time, giving the space industry one of its highest profile wins to date.
  • Investment in the space industry is also expected to hit record levels this year, despite the pandemic, according to Space Capital's Chad Anderson.
  • Virgin Galactic went public this year and other space companies plan to do the same, another sign investors are willing to take chances on the industry.

The intrigue: Those accomplishments defied expectations that the space industry would largely shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Instead, companies working with government customers continued much of their work, and the progress in the industry continued apace for the most part.
  • "The space ecosystem proved pretty much COVID proof," Carissa Christensen of Bryce Space and Technology told me.

Details: Investment in rockets, satellites and other infrastructure needed to keep the space industry afloat went down in the second quarter of the year, but it bounced back in the third quarter.

  • And other parts of the space industry — like data analysis — received higher amounts of investment throughout the pandemic.
  • Private Earth observing companies, for example, found new ways to aid in pandemic relief, potentially bringing their business to a wider base of customers in the process.

Yes, but: The industry still has blind spots, including its dependency on government funding.

  • "I don't see a lot of business-to-business markets or business-to-consumer markets yet," Ian Christensen of the Secure World Foundation told me. "That's the transition I'd like to see before really jumping on the 'space has made it' argument."

What to watch: Space experts will be keeping a close eye on investment in the space industry next year, as various companies mature and raise more money.

  • Specifically, the business case behind megaconstellations of internet-beaming satellites like Starlink hasn't been proven and will be something to watch in 2021.
  • The Trump administration made NASA a priority, opening up new avenues to support the private space industry.
  • Keep an eye on how the incoming Biden administration will affect the industry by its support of commercial spaceflight and new contracts for private companies working with the government.
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