Examining 2021 Space Industry Trends

Examining 2021 Space Industry Trends

It’s the holiday season which means this is the last article for the year. I’ll be taking a break for the next few weeks. I need it, especially after completing a class covering Debye lengths, bremsstrahlung, and MeVs (orbital mechanics is easy in comparison). I had to even use E=mc^2–a terrible concept to inflict on a journalism major. But, alas, that background is the price of taking FIT’s “Commercial Enterprise in Space” master’s program. Halfway through, now…

Another Analysis Perspective

While Twitter gets a bad rap because of the sewer-like nature of most discourse there, it’s still handy. I get more valuable information there than from any other social media platform. A case in point is a response I received to last week’s analysis of General Thompson’s statements regarding China’s progress with its military space programs.

I pretty much shot down Thompson’s statements, as he didn’t support them with any data, and the data I researched doesn’t support what he said. However, there is one aspect I didn’t cover, which is the overall mass of spacecraft deployed during 2021. Pierre Lionnet from Eurospace reminded me about this part of industry measurement, focusing specifically on “institutional” (civil/military) spacecraft deployments.

Why pay attention to Pierre? Well, he and I have worked together for a few years as his organization provides some of the metrics to the Space Foundation’s “The Space Report” series. So he’s done this for a while.

Why focus on mass since Pierre admits it’s a crude indicator? Especially given the difficulty of getting precise satellite mass numbers from China and the U.S. military? High mass launch capability demonstrates a nation’s ability to deploy as much as it requires in orbit and provides flexibility in the type of payloads that can be deployed (I’m sure Pierre could put it more eloquently). Pierre’s charts show, unsurprisingly, that China’s civil and particularly military programs are indeed lofting a lot of mass to orbit.

Pierre notes that this mass could be what the general is referring to. I agree, except again, Thompson never supports his statements either with Eurospace’s numbers or (as noted in my analysis) any type of data. Instead, the general expects the audience to accept his statements merely because he is a general of the U.S. military. Again, he’s using fear to gain funding when the service he’s attempting to support is not using what it already has available wisely.

If we study the overall industry mass metric worldwide, companies and organizations in the United States will lead this metric in 2021, primarily because of SpaceX’s Starlink deployments. SpaceX alone seems on track to have deployed over 300 tons to orbit in 2021. Of course, that’s just using the Falcon 9. It’s hard to predict how much more mass will be deployed if and when Starship becomes operational with its 100-150 ton payload capacity. But customers will use that capability…eventually.

They first need to manufacture more satellites. A lot more. Or huge ones. Maybe both.

The Past Year

Going over global space industry activities in 2021, it almost seems like a worldwide health disruption is a thing of the past. Instead, it will likely be a record-setting year, both in launches attempted and satellites deployed (as well as overall mass lifted to orbit).

Those are the obvious markers, but what about the other activities? It’s time to provide a few observations and thoughts of some of the space “flavors of the day” during 2021. Generally, some promises were fulfilled, but many weren’t. Aside from this mention, I will not be covering Artemis, SLS, and Orion, as they aren’t the industry’s future based only on the exorbitant costs to launch the system. Topics I am interested in:

  • Commercial suborbital rides
  • LEO broadband activities
  • U.S. space industry workplace and workforce management challenges
  • Smallsat manufacturing
  • Operational commercial space companies from other nations?
  • EO/RS companies
  • Analyst space economy forecasts and calculations

Let’s get to it!

Commercial suborbital rides

Just this month, Blue Origin launched its New Shepard suborbital funride with (possibly) paying passengers. It was the third such ride since passengers first rode on it in July 2021. The bi-monthly rate may accelerate, but that depends on how many paying passengers exist. Blue Origin noted this in its latest launch’s press release:

Blue Origin is planning several crewed and payload flights in 2022.

What’s clear, though, is that even though Blue Origin was the second company to fly people to sub orbit commercially, it’s currently the only company doing so. The fact that no mishaps have occurred with New Shepard during the three launches is not necessarily a reliability indicator–but it’s heartening to see that.

On the other hand, Virgin Galactic has only flown one mission with passengers on SpaceShipTwo and has already said it won’t fly passengers commercially until the fall of 2022. I have to wonder about the delay’s impact on its passenger manifest, especially considering how often Virgin Galactic pushes its schedule to the right. Does the delay result in Blue Origin gaining passengers who originally planned to ride on SpaceShipTwo? Does the FAA’s recent decision to stop issuing commercial astronaut “wings” result in less desirability for either company’s potential customers? (I doubt it.) But adding the lack of commercial VG funrides to already existing business case questions, questionable safety culture, and seeming reliability challenges makes Virgin’s quest for viability seem quixotic.

LEO broadband activities

This is a weird one. At the end of 2021, SpaceX’s Starlink is ahead of its LEO competitors in satellite deployments and customers. OneWeb is a distant second behind SpaceX on both counts. But the other companies, Amazon and Telesat, are still Earthbound (almost as if they are still puzzling out a business case).

There may be good reasons for some of the optimism surrounding these companies’ activities. But, unfortunately, there are also good reasons why they might still fail. I also think (at least in the U.S.) the primary basis driving desirability for these constellations could be made obsolete in a heartbeat–if the Federal Communications Commission wasn’t so set on keeping local broadband monopolies in place.

In 2021, The Verge’s Nilay Patel nails the reason for U.S. customers desiring this type of satellite service in his initial Starlink service review:

“As a whole, the American telecom policy industrial complex has utterly failed to put fiber in the ground and signals in the air at fair prices and with good customer support. So much so that a total science project of an internet access system — which involves huge tradeoffs for scientific research and doesn’t work if there are trees in the way — has captured the attention and imagination of millions.”

“Broadband on the ground is so wrapped up in the lumbering bullshit of monopolistic regulatory capture that it seems easier and more effective to literally launch rockets and try building a network in the sky. Starlink isn’t the happy end result of a commitment to “facility-based competition.” It is thousands of middle fingers pointing at us from the air. It is what happens when there is an utter lack of competition.”

He speaks for me, and it’s worth a read, even if his article was published in May.

The LEO broadband companies plans’ would come crumbling down if the current regulatory framework favored competition instead of protectionism. SpaceX would suddenly be courting many more military and government contracts while shrinking constellation plans. Until then, LEO broadband companies will benefit, a little anyway, from U.S. regulatory perversion and keep building their “market.”

U.S. space industry workplace and workforce management challenges

This year, there were so many stories (and this one posted two days ago) about high-profile space companies tolerating toxic workplace practices and encouraging them while attempting to keep people from shining light on those practices (sexual harassment, workplace safety, bullying, etc.). Blue Origin, Amazon, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Rocket Lab, etc.--all have had stories published about them concerning the lack of “adult supervision” from management. Maybe some of those stories are instigated by people with an ax to grind. Maybe some come from people willing to use whatever card they think will get them ahead.

But the frequency of these stories indicates there’s truth there, and frankly, that sort of thing is unacceptable in any environment, whether from "tech bros" or military "bubbas." Either that or these companies’ hiring managers are serially terrible at judging a person’s character during the interview process. However, based on the messages I see on LinkedIn from recruiters, that is also not beyond the pale.

These kinds of environments are not conducive to a creative and dynamic workforce. They don’t foster a culture in which employees and the company can both grow financially and professionally. And their prevalence should be troubling, but because of the personalities involved (and the money generated), people turn a blind eye. On the other hand, the companies with those environments present a convenient poaching opportunity for more enlightened companies that promote a humane environment.

Smallsat manufacturing

There isn’t too much to say about this other than note that there are at least two factories that are producing working, commercial satellites at high rates. OneWeb and Starlink appear to be manufacturing a certain number of satellites each day instead of one satellite every four years. OneWeb also offers a version of its satellite for customers to modify and operate. Other new companies purport the ability to manufacture satellites rapidly, too.

Astonishingly (writing that sarcastically), the legacy companies, Airbus, Lockheed, Boeing, etc., haven’t stepped toward rapidly building small but capable satellites. They are supposedly the ones with manufacturing might, but government contracts are just too tempting to do anything other than business as usual. The hungry will eat their lunch.

Operational commercial space companies from other nations?

Aside from the legacy space companies in other countries, newer operational companies based in nations other than the U.S. don’t appear to be nearly as prevalent. To be clear, they do exist, but considering all of the hype, I would think more startups from other nations would be further along than announcing plans for a business. They would actually be operating that business, too.

That would be a healthy turn of events, and it would keep U.S. space companies on their toes. More importantly, they would bring different products and services, as their diverse backgrounds would inevitably inform the ideas behind them. I would guess some of their challenges come from hope for government funding. But, those funds are typically allocated by regional space agencies operating on a “we know best who to give money to” sort of principle.

While China’s space activities have expanded, it has somehow managed to stay isolated from the world’s commercial space arena. Russia’s space industry (aside from launch, so far) also can’t be counted on to contribute positively to commercial space activities. Even Russia’s launch industry appears to rely on ancient launch architecture–not great. The United States is basing commercial policies off of fear–ITAR—which weakens the U.S. sector. So long as that stays in place, there will be growing opportunities for companies from other nations to exploit.

EO/RS companies

More operational space-based EO/RS companies exist now than I think ever have in the industry’s history. I remember before their growth how U.S. military and intelligence leaders worried about how commercially-provided imagery specifically would aid the terrorists and others who harbor ill will towards the U.S. That may be true. But like any other product or service, that is just one side of a 20-sided die. However, the problem for the industry appears to be discovering what the remaining 19 sides are. Then they must decide whether those products will be desirable to anyone other than a government or a military organization.

I am confident that will happen, however. Companies like Tomorrow.io (formerly ClimaCell) already provide desirable services that are getting into the space-based EO/RS sector to augment their portfolio. There are also companies, such as Capella, Umbra, and Iceye, who are offering something other than optical imagery: they use synthetic aperture radar to generate their “imagery.” There are others, such as GHGSat, who use infrared sensors to detect methane emissions.

While there will be casualties among these new companies, I wonder if the diversity of data options generated will allow for serendipity and discovery of what customers truly want. When that happens, that’s when this part of the space industry will explode in growth.

Analyst space economy predictions and calculations

So. Much. “Analysis.” So. Little. Relevance.

I would say never before has so much been written by so many investment, bank, and space-oriented analysts with so little connection to reality, but who am I kidding. The upshot of these economic industry forecasts, though, is that they do nothing to “help” the industry, except be an industry in themselves.

These types of forecasts have been around since the first caveman wanted to know how many tigers were in a forest. He then paid an analyst to predict that number, who just looked at one side of the forest and came up with an estimate. The analyst estimated there were five tigers, and none had claws or teeth. The caveman then went into the forest with his readiness based on that analysis. He paid a second time for the report with his life. Who knew that 20 toothy and clawed tigers lived there instead of the five defenseless ones the analyst predicted? But since the dead caveman has no negative feedback, the analyst did great! Since then, that’s the way the business has worked. At least, that’s how I imagine it started.

I understand the desire to work in an industry that shows growth. However, there are very fundamental and questionable issues with these reports (and the organizations that promote them. All of it relies on the desperation of those seeking a way to get a part of the industry action or an edge on the competition: tell them what they want to hear. People will pay for what they want to hear.

First, many of the reports demonstrate their analysts don’t understand the industry, what it is, what the technologies do, the value of the services, etc. Second, there are those who throw in everything, including the kitchen sink, into their estimates. They do this to give the appearance of industry growth. This means they count something that isn’t truly a space product or service, such as a smartphone app that uses GPS-type chipsets, as a space application. The third, then is a logical outcome of the first two missteps. If they don’t understand the industry and are using unrelated categories to show growth, then how is the resulting forecast even close to accurate?

And that’s just the basics. These forecasts predict space industry growth that is modest at best and business as usual at worst. They also rely on very conservative calculations that result in minimal growth, which is in line with the previous decade’s growth percentages (primarily driven by government and military money). However, the worst part is that these organizations trumpet that modest growth as a “trillion-dollar” industry. That is true, in the same way a snowball inevitably accrues more snow as it rolls downhill. Whether that type of forecasting and the methods to create it is par for the industry or not doesn’t matter…it’s dishonest.

There are other issues with these types of forecasts that I’ve addressed before (a lack of imagination being chief among them).  As long as journalists keep mindlessly using their press releases as clickbait, someone will always be ready to supply the dishonesty. I suspect they, as the economic mynocks of the industry, will be around long after humanity has expanded past the Solar System. In the meantime, they should be mocked mercilessly.

End of Line

And that’s it for 2021, from my perspective. There are more topics, but this is already too long. Commercial ISS/space station initiatives are still only that–initiatives. The U.S. launch industry seems to have a single strong player/single point of failure. Either way, that’s not a healthy commercial launch sector, and smallsat launch services aren’t a viable alternative. I don’t believe current competitors even think they need to compete. That just leads me to believe there are more reasons for seeing growth–if competitors appear.

Have a great holiday season and a very happy New Year!