Jan 4, 2022 - Science

Private space companies' 2022 promises to keep

Illustration of a business hand and an astronaut hand about to make a pinky promise.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The private human spaceflight industry delivered on long-held promises in 2021, but 2022 is the year where it will need to prove itself to the public.

Why it matters: The space industry is predicted to be worth more than $1 trillion within the next 10 years. But for that to happen, companies will need to turn the extraordinary feats of the last year into routine operations.

What's happening: Last year, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic both launched their founders — Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, respectively — to space for the first time.

  • Blue Origin followed that up with two more suborbital human flights in 2021.
  • Those missions marked the culmination of decades of work for the two companies and delivered on a promise of sending more nonprofessionals to space.
  • SpaceX also consistently launched crewed missions to the International Space Station for NASA, a major customer that will influence the continued growth of the company, and it had a huge success with four nonprofessionals flying to orbit without a pro-astronaut onboard on the Inspiration4 mission.

What to watch: Now, those companies are trying to demonstrate they can consistently deliver these services — and turn a profit from them.

  • That means flying more. Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are expected by space watchers to fly people to space consistently and safely this year. That will be key to determining whether the successes of the last year are one-offs or if they can get into "some sort of rhythm and make some money," Carissa Christensen, founder and CEO of BryceTech, told Axios.
  • SpaceX is planning to launch Axiom Mission-1 to the International Space Station early in 2022, which will act as a follow-up to Inspiration4 and could be an indicator of the market for more amateur orbital flights.
  • It's hard to gauge whether private companies like Blue Origin are profitable — because their finances aren't open to the public — but routinely launching, which is expensive, can act as a proxy for it, Christensen said.

Yes, but: Transforming these missions into routine services won't be easy.

  • It will require companies to increase launch cadence, which is challenging because they're working with relatively new technology and within complicated regulatory frameworks.

The big picture: The public demand for these types of services could also become more clear this year.

  • Studies indicate there is "substantial demand" for suborbital spaceflight, Christensen says. "You have a larger pool of people that can afford it now."
  • According to a May 2021 note sent to investors by analysts Ken Herbert and Austin Moeller, of Canaccord Genuity, the suborbital tourism market could reach $8 billion by 2030 with 1 million potential customers.

Between the lines: Demonstrating they can turn a profit will be important for the companies working to make consistent, private human spaceflight a reality, but it's likely a small portion of the revenue for the space industry overall.

  • However, human spaceflight will be one of the most important public-facing elements of the overall industry. Major failures and successes will shift the way the public sees the industry, adding to its support or detracting from it.

The bottom line: Last year, the private spaceflight industry showed what it can do, but this year, these companies will need to capitalize on it.

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