Dec 14, 2021 - Science

The space industry's monumental 2021

Illustration of the number 2021 in space backed by a burst of light
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The space industry's tremendous year of huge investments, major human launches and hundreds of satellites sent to space also laid bare just how far the sector has to go before it fully matures.

Why it matters: Years like 2021 help bolster predictions the space industry could be worth more than $1 trillion by 2040.

What's happening: The industry has seen huge amounts of growth and investment this year, bouncing back from a low point during 2020, the first year of the pandemic.

  • Launch, satellite and analytics-oriented companies went public via SPAC and have shown that, at least initially, investors are interested in playing a part in the space industry.
  • Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin both launched their founders to space within weeks of one another, marking the culmination of decades of work, while SpaceX continued to launch crews for NASA and sent a private crew of astronauts to orbit for the first time.
  • NASA has awarded companies multimillion- and billion-dollar contracts to design and build private space stations and help the agency explore the Moon in the future.
  • Meanwhile, SpaceX has continued to build its mega-constellation of Starlink satellites, with other companies like Amazon not far behind.

Yes, but: This year has also exposed some of the industry's challenges as it grows.

  • A newly published essay from former SpaceX engineer Ashley Kosak claims the company didn't address multiple instances of harassment over her 3.5 years of employment, and she left the company in November.
  • Kosak contends the culture fostered by SpaceX has enabled harassment. (SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment on these allegations.)
  • It isn't limited to SpaceX. Twenty-one Blue Origin employees in September claimed cultural issues within the company — like harassment and chronic overwork — and said they question the safety of their systems.

The big picture: SpaceX and many others in the "new space" industry are beginning to move from being a disruption-focused new company on the scene to a more established player in a maturing industry.

  • "The way an iconoclastic, we're-breaking-the-rules, we're-doing-something-new organization works is really different from when that organization is a couple thousand people, subject to labor laws and worrying about continuity," Carissa Christensen, founder and CEO of BryceTech, told Axios.

Other risks to the growing industry are also being exposed.

  • The public is just at the beginning of being able to invest in many space companies as they go public, but most — including Wall Street analysts — don't yet understand the nuances of the growing industry.
  • Instead, Christensen thinks it's possible that all space companies get lumped into the same bucket and judged based on overall performance of that group.
  • "If some do well, then space companies are a good investment. If some do poorly, then space companies are a bad investment without noticing the differentiation and the relative performance," Christensen said.

The bottom line: The space industry has grown in recognition, popularity and size this year, but its growing pains need to be resolved.

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