May 16, 2023 - Science

Growing the supply chain to space

Illustration of a stack of shipping crates extending into space

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Government and commercial interest and investment are spurring a new industrial base for the space industry.

Why it matters: The transformation will set up the space economy for the coming decades, playing a major role in just how much the industry can grow.

  • Today's space supply chain includes satellite manufacturers, instrument specialists and rocket companies, among others. The industry has gone from largely bespoke to far more plug-and-play than it used to be.
  • "Companies that started out with a vision of services are now also part of the supply chain in a new way," BryceTech CEO Carissa Christensen tells Axios.

What's happening: Companies are changing the way they operate on Earth in order to meet government and private demand.

  • Government entities like NASA and the Department of Defense are no longer looking to just buy satellites and spacecraft made especially for them for every mission.
  • Instead, they and private customers are increasingly willing to buy more generic products — like standardized satellite bodies — that are less expensive and can be used with instruments either developed in-house or provided by others.
  • Companies themselves are also partnering with others to build out their own constellations of satellites that can be composed of tens, hundreds or thousands of spacecraft.

For example: Maxar announced in April that it is rebranding its portfolio, offering customers a family of different-sized satellite bodies to choose from for any orbit or mission.

  • Instruments best suited to any given mission will be able to be added to those satellite bodies and get sent to space.
  • "We are really now looking at the industrialization of space, not a bespoke mission here, bespoke mission there," Daniel Jablonsky, president and CEO of Maxar, told Axios in April at the National Space Symposium.

Between the lines: Part of what's spurring this revolution is that satellite technology has gotten less expensive and satellites themselves have become smaller over the years, making them easier and cheaper to launch.

  • Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build a communications satellite that needs to be sent to a distant orbit, companies are able to build satellites for $1 million or less that can be launched to a relatively low orbit.
  • "GEO satellites were manufactured one at a time, and now we've got companies with factories that are producing dozens or hundreds or thousands of small [satellites], that's really different," Christensen said.

The big picture: The space industrial base used to be largely composed of big, government aerospace contractors like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and others providing hardware that was highly specific to each of their customers.

  • As relatively new companies enter the supply chain, they're "creating competitive pressure on the companies that have been there a long time, and they're operating differently," Christensen said.
  • Rocket Lab, for example, is positioning itself not as a rocket company or a spacecraft builder but instead as a company for any and all space needs, from small satellite manufacturing to small rocket launches.
  • "I'm looking to partner" with other companies, Robert Lightfoot, the executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space, told me at the symposium. "The goal is not to buy them. The goal is to help grow the industrial base, not shrink it. ... So that's a different model for us."

Yes, but: As industrialization of the space industry continues, it's possible that the quality of the satellites being produced could go down.

  • If satellites are moving away from being bespoke and handmade, it's possible their quality could decrease, potentially increasing costs for operators and driving the creation of space junk in orbit.
Go deeper