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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.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Jan 19, 2021 - Science

NASA is trying to figure out what comes next for its huge Moon rocket

Photo: NASA TV

The first flight planned for NASA's Space Launch System rocket hangs in the balance as the space agency reckons with a major test that didn't go as planned this weekend.

Why it matters: The billions of dollars over-budget SLS is key to NASA's plans to send people to the surface of the Moon by 2024 and for the agency's deep space exploration goals for years to come.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
24 mins ago - Economy & Business

Scoop: Red Sox strike out on deal to go public

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The parent company of the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool F.C. has ended talks to sell a minority ownership stake to RedBall Acquisition, a SPAC formed by longtime baseball executive Billy Beane and investor Gerry Cardinale, Axios has learned from multiple sources. An alternative investment, structured more like private equity, remains possible.

Why it matters: Red Sox fans won't be able to buy stock in the team any time soon.