U.S. Space Industry Growth Through U.S. Administrations



Ah crap! Numbers are hard. Trump, as we all know, was sworn in January 2017. So, yes, sorry about that. All the other numbers are correct (double-checked). And the point remains--the U.S. commercial space industry was growing back then. It's still growing.


When Joe Biden becomes the President of the United States in late January, what does his presidency mean for the commercial U.S. space industry?


Very little. But, as you’ll see, that’s not a terrible thing.


During his acceptance speech this last Saturday, Biden rightfully mentioned higher priorities as his mandates. The closest he came to acknowledging the space industry was his overt support of science. Although in that specific instance, Biden wants honest-to-god scientists to help save U.S. citizens from COVID-19. But science is what makes all things space possible.


Truth Growing through the Cracks of his Lies


The thing is, while the U.S. commercial space industry could be more open, it’s healthier than it’s been since a decade ago when Biden’s ex-boss was president. To be clear, the U.S. space industry’s progress is not because of Trump. Instead, it’s because of difficult decisions Presidents Bush and Obama made so long ago. Contrary to the current president’s surprising untruths about NASA and Florida earlier this year:

“When I first came into office three and a half years ago, NASA had lost its way, and the excitement, energy, and ambition, as almost everybody in this room knows, was gone. There was grass growing through the cracks of your concrete runways. Not a pretty sight. Not a pretty sight at all.”

Others, such as former U.S. astronaut John Grunsfeld, have more eloquent responses to these lies. To be sure, Trump talked a lot about space, eventually putting the U.S. Space Force in place.


But the U.S. commercial space industry was already thriving and providing glimpses of its future by the time Trump swore to serve the U.S. citizenry in early 2016.** (See mea culpa at the beginning of this article) All the following data comes from my (and others') work in the Space Foundation--specifically “The Space Report 2016.” By necessity, I will not provide the most accurate numbers reported in that publication because, hey, people should pay for that work.


In 2015, U.S. launches were slightly down from 2014 with 20 launch attempts (from 23). That year, SpaceX was slowly ramping up its launch rate, successfully launching five of six Falcon 9s. In late 2015, SpaceX was the first launch operator ever to launch and land an orbital rocket. Blue Origin also launched and landed its suborbital New Shepard rocket during 2015. Overall, U.S. launch attempts in 2020 look to exceed the nation’s 2018 totals, which was the highest for the U.S. in decades.


For spacecraft, U.S. companies manufactured around half of the 220+ spacecraft deployed during 2015 (this was less than the nearly 300 deployed in 2014). Very slightly less than half of all spacecraft deployed that year were for U.S. satellite operations companies. The majority of spacecraft deployed (80+) were for missions to see and understand the world--they were remote sensing and Earth observation satellites. More satellite operators are in the wings in 2020 with plans for deploying more different types of satellites than were available even back in 2015.


A Vibrant and Growing U.S. Space Industry


From 2014 through today, U.S. commercial satellite operators have continued to grow their share of all U.S. satellites deployed. They’ve also increased a dominant share of the world’s satellite deployments. As noted in “Fun with Numbers: China/U.S. Rocket Launches and Other Activities,” U.S. spacecraft deployments, at least through the end of September 2020, accounted for the largest share of all the world’s spacecraft deployments (over 650 U.S. spacecraft were successfully deployed). That nine-month total is more than twice 2014s spacecraft deployment total. No other nation comes close.


As noted earlier, Trump talked a lot about the U.S. space industry and the military. He implemented a National Space Council, headed by his Vice President, to develop U.S. space policy and strategy. While it’s unclear and too soon to observe whether the council’s five space policy directives will impact the commercial space industry, the administration didn’t slow down the industry’s growth, either. Of the five directives, two (Space Traffic Management and Regulation Streamlining) might impact U.S. commercial space, eventually.


As Trump inherited a vibrant and growing space industry in 2016,** (see note at top) Biden inherits a larger, more energetic version of it as he transitions to the Presidency in 2021. Sure, more could be done to remove friction points for the U.S. space industry to thrive. However, the fact that the industry is okay now, despite a spate of industry bankruptcies (which were not unexpected), a national pandemic, national employment challenges, etc., indicates it will probably be a very low priority for Biden or his proxies to become involved with.


There may be some immediate leadership changes with NASA, however...and that’s too bad.


The Trouble with Jim


Actually--never mind about Bridenstine. The news just came in Sunday evening that he isn't interested in working for Biden: https://aviationweek.com/defense-space/space/nasa-chief-says-he-wont-serve-biden-administration. Drat! Anyway, skip the next two paragraphs if you're not interested in alternate reality.


Jim Bridenstine has been NASA’s best, most energetic administrator in a long time. He advocates for his agency when he needs to. He listens to advisors and critics, usually responding quite fairly and intelligently. He understands he’s not the smartest man in the room but knows where he can find them. He even seems to have come to terms with his perceptions about the environmental changes going on in the world.


His biggest problem, however, is he gained his position through Trump. It may be that Biden personally and professionally has no issue with Bridenstine but feels the pressure to replace him because of that association alone. That would be a loss. It’s not an insurmountable loss. It may be his replacement is even better. But it would behoove Biden and his team to not be so hasty in this decision.


While specific programs require cancellation, NASA has benefited from a relatively steady annual allocation of taxpayer-funding. Even during this extremely challenging year, NASA is on the verge of having an operational human space transport system to the International Space Station by the end of this month. It may have two such systems by 2021’s end. NASA is doing fine during 2020, a success attributable to Bridenstine’s level-headed management of teams of talented people.


One other way Biden may inadvertently impact the commercial space sector in the U.S. is who he appoints as the next Federal Communications Commission lead. While Ajit Pai has been very gung-ho in his support of space companies, his attitudes, decisions, shenanigans, and such regarding U.S. internet regulation have generally all been wanting. It won't be a surprising decision if he gets replaced. But that's another story, making for a longer analysis--which I won't inflict on you today.


Again, Biden’s priorities, as well as the U.S. space sector’s overall good health, make it very unlikely he and his folks will be involving themselves very soon. Even when they do, they will find that, at least in the U.S. commercial sector, the space industry’s biggest influences--Musk, Bruno, Bezos, etc.--are still hard at work. They have different visions of what the U.S. space sector will look like in the future--extending in many ways, beyond U.S. government missions and capability.


Ultimately, they will continue growing the industry and implement their technologies in ways not anticipated. This industry is still growing, and it’s not clear the government will keep up no matter who is in charge. That’s the real challenge for the U.S. government in this industry: how does it foster growth without regulating the vitality out of it using assumptions formulated from behind?

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