I promise this is the last of the 2022 overviews. It points to a few opportunities from some of last year’s trends. It will also list a few of the mindsets and narratives observed last year (some are observed yearly). Those seeking opportunities through revenue/EBITDA analysis, SPACs, AI, crypto, etc., it’s probably best to stop reading now. This article is meant to be intelligible, appeal to the rational mind, and keep people awake. Also, the opportunities highlighted in it are general, with most of them broadly ignored by entrepreneurs and opportunists alike
As noted in the previous overviews, these are only some of the potential opportunities in the industry. They are probably not even 1/100th of a percent of all space industry opportunities. Nevertheless, the existence of these and others should give hope to those seeking to get a foot in the door in this industry while making the industry better, and make lots of money in the process. On to the list!
There’s a Lot of Opportunities (If There Aren’t, You Can Make Them)
- Human space physiology
- Think BIG!
- Pricing Transparency/Service simplification
- Space traffic monitoring and control
- Alternative rocket engine technologies
Human Space Physiology
Human space physiology is one of the least popular subjects for space startups to get involved in. Some individuals maintain lists of hundreds of potential launch and satellite startups, but lists of companies working on keeping humans safe, healthy, and comfortable in spaceflight? Not so much. That lack of lists may reflect the nature of the work, which is more challenging than merely building a rocket or a satellite. The human body is a much more complicated and messier proposition than rockets. That is why it’s commendable that NASA, ESA, Roscosmos, and others continue serious research on this topic, despite limited budgets. The problem for them is that there are not enough humans in space to conduct research with.
If companies are serious about transporting people safely across space distances, they need the data and technology to do so. Merely ensconcing them in stainless steel is not enough–people have human needs. Space motion sickness, for example, seems to be non-existent in narratives of those promoting dreams of human spaceflight. But it’s a genuine problem for astronauts. It’s not predictable, affecting new and experienced astronauts, and can go on for days. It’s dreadfully easy to imagine the “spewtacular” resulting from the decision to transport hundreds of people to space for the very first time. It only gets worse considering all those people crammed together, in microgravity, with free-floating gastric blobs and the lack of fresh air. That seems like hell come to life.
The point, however, is that the low level of interest indicates many opportunities. Even better, many solutions to physiological challenges in space are transferable to human ailments on Earth. No better example is bone loss, which occurs as the human body adapts to a microgravity environment. However, the human body loses bone as it ages, too. So what would people pay to not worry about a hip fracture?
Maybe that’s the initial criteria for startups in this field: Does it help humans in space? Can it also help people on Earth? If the answer is “yes” to both of those questions, that may indicate a very profitable opportunity.
There continue to be many opportunities in this area. The two noted here are opportunities in the vein of “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”
First, Russia. The industries in that nation have been withdrawn from the global space economy. The space companies of the world should take advantage of that and do what they can to keep ahead. But, isolated Russian space companies will suffer, which is highly frustrating to watch, considering their space accomplishments and legacy.
Second, the most significant opportunity for launch is Europe. That union, wrapped in bureaucracy, is facing the very real possibility of not having any large rocket available for any of its members' space missions in the near future. Worse, the mechanism it relies upon for its rocket-building efforts will remain in place afterward, rewarding a job incapably done. That scenario should encourage EU members to move outside that construct and encourage entrepreneurs to step in and build rockets. Otherwise, the system always stays the same.
As we’ve seen, since other operational European launch companies don’t exist to seize the opportunities, companies in other nations have stepped up (ISIL in India and SpaceX in the U.S.). There are many well-known European satellite manufacturers, but who can blame them for going overseas when Europe nearly has no launch capability? India appears to have friendly relations with the nations in which some of those manufacturers reside. If India can churn out more GSLVs to serve those companies, it should do so.
Realistically, building a rocket takes time—more time than from January 2023 to when Ariane 6 finally launches (maybe sometime in 2024). So, unless a builder has already been developing a similar or more capable rocket, it might be too late. But, of course, they only have to develop a rocket with similar or better performance than the Ariane 6. And the company building that rocket is fat, slow, and entitled, which is an opportunity.
There are other opportunities, such as making payload integration dead simple; making payload integration a matter of a few hours; etc.
This topic is related to launch. If we are to believe the plans of a few launch companies, they will be fielding rockets that can lift from 50 to 150 tons of mass to LEO. One company, in particular, indicates its rocket will do so for much less cost per kilogram than anything offered before. Either way, if they manage to get these rockets launching reliably, it would make sense for spacecraft operators to at least contemplate the size of their spacecraft. Can they be completed better/cheaper with a much larger spacecraft (or, as in the case of Project Kuiper, a payload of multiple smaller spacecraft)?
There are benefits to using a bigger spacecraft for missions, but each operator will need to ponder if it makes sense for them to do so. Almost all decisions will hinge on whether the advertising of lowered launch costs becomes a reality. Does increasing a spacecraft’s operational lifetime to decades give it an edge in an industry embracing iterative designs? Would optical, radar, or other satellites benefit from using larger sensors? Could spacecraft become more maneuverable for collision avoidance if more propellant can be loaded? Would increasing the spacecraft’s external structural depth help against debris/micrometeoroid collisions?
Amazon’s Project Kuiper has calculated this, hoping its contractual bet on Blue Origin will have positive results. NASA seems to have faith that there will be a Starship. Their hope and faith merely point to the possibility of these huge upmass-capable rockets coming into existence. Hope is a terrible business plan. But it points to an opportunity.
Pricing Transparency/Service Simplification
If the future of buying the world’s rockets, spacecraft, Earth observation products, and satellite communications services continues to resemble the practices of that sleazy used car dealership on Broadway, then something needs to change. I’ve already provided some reasons why in “How Bazaar!”, so I won’t get into too much detail here. I received some pushback to that analysis about why pricing transparency is an unreasonable ask. It’s too complicated. The variables, such as orbital altitudes, a spacecraft’s mass, etc., make it impossible. Those excuses make the space companies sound worse than that sleazy used car dealer. At least the dealership has a price on the car’s windscreen (and includes that Pine Tree air freshener).
Make it easier for customers to understand. Piece it out, as a dealership does. Whatever it takes, the space company that makes it easier for customers to buy a service or product will reap the rewards. Companies that refuse to do that should fail. I wonder how much SpaceX’s “internet pricing” lures people onto the show floor. Frankly, SpaceX’s pricing barely makes the grade for pricing transparency and service simplification. ALL can do better. That’s an opportunity.
Space Traffic Monitoring and Control
If a company can deploy satellites that can provide real-time tracking and identification of satellites at all altitudes, it would probably get quite a few contracts. That’s an educated guess. Whether the customer is a civil agency, military group, or a commercial company, if they have a spacecraft in orbit or a plan to put one-to-many in orbit, they want as much information about what’s floating in space around those spacecraft as possible. Especially when there are plans to deploy nearly 100,000 satellites around the Earth, the reliance on terrestrial-based radar and optical sites to do this is laudable, but represent lazy, half-hearted attempts, too.
This is an opportunity and one I’ve provided some decent data about in mid-2022.
Alternative Rocket Engine Technologies
This is, admittedly, a long-shot opportunity and will take time. I’m not talking about aerospike rocket engines, either. Humans have gotten pretty good at working with rocket engines, making them more efficient, reliable, and powerful. I wonder, however, if there’s something better than those engines. That question is on my mind because the auto industry is moving towards electric vehicles. Some acknowledge that a few of their latest performance vehicles celebrate the last of their kind to be powered by internal combustion engines. Even the U.S. military is moving towards alternative means to move their tanks and other vehicles around.
Companies like Spinlaunch are on the cusp of answering my pondering. If electric power becomes cheaper to generate, does scaling Spinlaunch’s centrifuge-inspired launcher, or using a Hyperloop-based launch rail, make more sense? It might be more environmentally friendly. Will companies such as Reaction Engines finally live up to their promises and potential?
Maybe? But here’s a suggestion for those who see this opportunity: do some market research and don’t make promises that can’t be kept.
That leads into the last bit.
Space Industry Follies
These are some of the mindsets and narratives I’ve seen in the industry during 2022. Of course, I understand that my perspectives aren’t universal. However, isn’t the future, especially in the space industry, about making life better for humanity? If that’s the case, maybe starting closer to home and recognizing that making things better here can skew the odds of achieving that goal.
Questionable Ethics (or a Lacking Ethics Altogether)
Wherever there’s an opportunity, a few people will knowingly and/or, through ignorance, fake it until someone else buys it. These ethically dubious individuals call themselves entrepreneurs, risk-takers, influencers, etc., but ultimately, they take advantage of employees' and potential investors' excitement or greed. To be clear, not all who append those labels to themselves are ethically questionable, which is why this is a problem. However, the bad apples ruin it for everybody (and don’t even get me started on the “analysts” from large firms who push the “trillion-dollar” space economy angle).
These moral challenges occur through all stages of life, and snake oil salespeople have been around since people have been around. However, in the space industry, a lack of ethics can, for example, result in people losing their lives while conducting something as hazardous as rocket engine tests (or close to doing so, anyway). Most of the time, a person can see the questionable ethics (or even a lack of understanding) at work in a few startups’ PowerPoint decks, which, while tedious, aren’t dangerous.
Does the person or company’s dishonesty/embellishments mean employees and investors are free and clear of responsibility? No. Instead, those individuals should do their homework on the people and companies before committing anything. And to ensure they aren’t treating their people like garbage.
Acceptance of Abusive Workplaces
Just because a person is a manager or a CEO doesn’t mean they know how to treat people. There seem to be more and more stories cropping up of abusive workplace practices towards employees from the newer space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. This type of behavior has been around since, again, people. But the Silicon Valley types seem to almost bask in the promotion of bad/destructive behavior in their cultures.
Does this mean those practices don’t happen in legacy space companies? No! But legacy companies usually try to keep the work culture reasonably professional. First, there tend to be adults running some parts of these large companies. Second, that nonsense costs them money, especially if they rely on government contracts. Those behaviors should never be acceptable, no matter how “special” the person exhibiting them is, whether it’s unwanted advances or just threatening livelihoods.
I am unsure what it will take, but these abusive company cultures are typically encouraged from the top, so looking there might help. At the same time, employees should understand that they can opt-out of these problems. Does it hurt the pocketbook to leave? Maybe, but staying will carve an indelible mark on the psyche. It’s not worth it. It isn't worth it if the company isn’t actively keeping those behaviors down. Treat it as a toxic partner is treated.
Um, no matter who is involved, there is none?
Not with SpaceX dumping hundreds of thousands of kilograms of satellites in orbit. Not when China is still playing catch-up to come even close to equaling U.S. space assets. China is launching a lot, but as noted in a previous analysis, it must because most of its rockets can’t lift 10,000 kg of mass to orbit. Nearly half can’t lift 2,000 kg or more. SpaceX, a single U.S. company, launched as many rockets in 2022 as all China’s agencies and companies combined–61. That’s not a race, despite what journalists repeat even just this week.
Maybe there’s confusion about intent and general policies regarding “great power” competition. Sure, there are conversations in China about the moon and Mars. But, the U.S., Europeans, and Indians also have conversations about those topics. Other “space race” stories come up so often that it almost seems a space Grand Prix is going on. For example, this story indicates that the launch of an American rocket near a United Kingdom spaceport puts that country in the midst of a space race. Here’s another that puts chipmakers at each other’s throats–in a space race.
With those examples already starting the year, space race stories, like toothpaste in a tube, will determinedly be squeezed out for the year’s remainder. But, as I’ve suggested on Twitter, perhaps the writers could at least use a thesaurus. Change the words and make the rest of us at least work to still make fun of the idea.
Head in the Sand (or, Why We Won’t Change Our Business)
As often as the global space industry is promoted as undergoing unprecedented change, there’s a counter running to that narrative that refuses to recognize the potential of changes in the industry. Those who do, offer multitudes of reasons why they won’t be changing, occasionally deflecting attention from their organization’s inability to adapt by pointing to the reasons for a competitor’s success.
For example, as some European managers counter the changes brought on by rocket reusability, they point out U.S. subsidization of U.S. rocket companies such as SpaceX. Their rationale is that SpaceX could only have risen to prominence with government support. True or not, that argument doesn’t answer “why” a European company–especially one receiving government subsidies (it takes one to know one?) and should therefore remain prominent–is choosing not to go that route. Worse, they do not offer reasonable alternatives that can be accomplished, instead offering newer versions of something already working for the company while offering little of note to customers.
If changing one’s mind when presented with new information is a sign of intelligence, what might a company signify to the rest of the space industry as it disregards market changes? Some other examples of “head in the ground” thinking. Those sticking with ITAR, when it obviously not only ties the U.S. space industry’s hands behind its back but shoots it in the foot, fall under this observation. So does doggedly promoting national broadband or PNT constellations.
The space industry is changing. “Business as usual” should be questioned, internally and externally. If the answers to those questions conveniently point towards staying the course, then those answers must be ruthlessly cross-examined.
That’s all I have for 2022. If you think there’s an opportunity or mindset/narrative I missed, please share. In the meantime, if 2023 is anything like the previous year, there will be plenty more to observe and analyze at its end.