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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

2020 was the year the space industry started to prove itself — setting up big expectations for its maturity and growth in the coming year.

The big picture: From crewed commercial flights to startup space companies going public, this year — against the headwinds of a global pandemic — a maturing space industry emerged.

  • "2020 has been an improbable success," space analyst Chris Quilty told me.

Driving the news: There were about 39 licensed commercial launches in 2020, according to the Department of Transportation, surpassing 2018's record of 33.

  • SpaceX also made good on a promise years in the making by launching NASA astronauts to the International Space Station for the first time, giving the space industry one of its highest profile wins to date.
  • Investment in the space industry is also expected to hit record levels this year, despite the pandemic, according to Space Capital's Chad Anderson.
  • Virgin Galactic went public this year and other space companies plan to do the same, another sign investors are willing to take chances on the industry.

The intrigue: Those accomplishments defied expectations that the space industry would largely shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Instead, companies working with government customers continued much of their work, and the progress in the industry continued apace for the most part.
  • "The space ecosystem proved pretty much COVID proof," Carissa Christensen of Bryce Space and Technology told me.

Details: Investment in rockets, satellites and other infrastructure needed to keep the space industry afloat went down in the second quarter of the year, but it bounced back in the third quarter.

  • And other parts of the space industry — like data analysis — received higher amounts of investment throughout the pandemic.
  • Private Earth observing companies, for example, found new ways to aid in pandemic relief, potentially bringing their business to a wider base of customers in the process.

Yes, but: The industry still has blind spots, including its dependency on government funding.

  • "I don't see a lot of business-to-business markets or business-to-consumer markets yet," Ian Christensen of the Secure World Foundation told me. "That's the transition I'd like to see before really jumping on the 'space has made it' argument."

What to watch: Space experts will be keeping a close eye on investment in the space industry next year, as various companies mature and raise more money.

  • Specifically, the business case behind megaconstellations of internet-beaming satellites like Starlink hasn't been proven and will be something to watch in 2021.
  • The Trump administration made NASA a priority, opening up new avenues to support the private space industry.
  • Keep an eye on how the incoming Biden administration will affect the industry by its support of commercial spaceflight and new contracts for private companies working with the government.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Jan 29, 2021 - Science

NASA will stage another test of its huge new rocket next month

An SLS engine firing. Photo: NASA TV

NASA is planning to re-do a major test of its Space Launch System rocket after the last test didn't go as planned earlier this month.

The big picture: The space agency hopes to launch the first uncrewed flight of the SLS by the end of the year, but having to re-run this test could put that timeline at risk.

Updated 18 mins ago - Technology

3D printing's next act: big metal objects

Chief Scientist Andy Bayramian makes modifications to the laser system on Seurat's 3D metal printer. Photo courtesy of Seurat Technologies.

A new metal 3D printing technology could revolutionize the way large industrial products like planes and cars are made, reducing the cost and carbon footprint of mass manufacturing.

Why it matters: 3D printing — also called additive manufacturing — has been used since the 1980s to make small plastic parts and prototypes. Metal printing is newer, and the challenge has been figuring out how to make things like large car parts faster and cheaper than traditional methods.

Updated 2 hours ago - Technology

Mayors see cryptocurrency as a way to address income inequality

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

At the U.S. Conference of Mayors' meeting in D.C. this week, there's buzz around the idea of giving cryptocurrency accounts to low-income people.

Why it matters: Cities have been experimenting with newfangled ways to address income inequality — like guaranteed income programs — and the latest wave of trials could involve paying benefits or dividends in bitcoin, stablecoin or other digital currencies.