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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

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
Jan 26, 2021 - Economy & Business

Larry Fink to CEOs: Climate risk is investment risk

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The biggest investor in the world has an unambiguous message for the CEOs of the companies he invests in: climate risk is investment risk.

Why it matters: Pressure from BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, who controls $9 trillion, will encourage companies to report not only what their greenhouse gas emissions are today, but also what they're doing to ensure that their future emissions are in line with Paris Agreement targets that end at zero in 2050.

59 mins ago - World

Tunisian president ousts prime minister, suspends parliament amid unrest

Tunisians stage a protest in response to the problems in the health sector in the country, demanding the resignation of the government and the dissolution of the parliament in Tunis on July 25. Photo: Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Tunisian President Kais Saied announced Sunday that he had dismissed the country's prime minister and frozen the parliament amidst mass protests in the country, Reuters reports.

Why it matters: The move, which comes on the 64th anniversary of Tunisia's independence, escalates Saied's longstanding feud with Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and poses a challenge to the 2014 constitution that "split powers between president, prime minister and parliament," per Reuters.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Pelosi appoints GOP Rep. Kinzinger to Jan. 6 committee

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced Sunday that she has appointed Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) to serve on the House select committee investigating the Jan 6. Capitol riot.

Why it matters: Pelosi's announcement comes after she rejected two of the five Republican appointments offered by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).