While much of the world experienced significant interruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the commercial space industry has remained busy serving the needs of commercial and government clients. Perhaps the most exciting moment has been SpaceX fulfilling its Commercial Crew obligations with successful Demo-1 and Crew-1 missions.
It is exciting to see manned launches from the US again after the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011 – and even more exciting that the crewed launch was able to occur during the pandemic shutdown.
In addition to the Commercial Crew Program launch, many players have remained active during the year with >80 successful launches, hundreds of satellites deployed and operating in Low Earth Orbit, and the build-out of ground-based space services.
While much of the world shut down in March and April as countries attempted to curb the transmission of COVID-19, launch service providers continued as essential services in many countries. There was a temporary slowdown in launches in April, though the market picked back up in May and launches have accelerated throughout the summer and fall.
Rocket Lab, a New Zealand launch services provider, has made strides in demonstrating the reusability of its first stage booster on November 19th. Unlike the Falcon 9, the Rocket Lab booster utilized a drogue and main parachute to have a controlled splashdown.
Telecommunications satellites have driven Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite growth in 2020. SpaceX has now launched 955 Starlink satellites, of which 895 remain on orbit. In late October, SpaceX announced a beta launch of the Starlink satellite internet service. Initial customers pay $499 for the in-home terminal and $99 a month for access. After emerging from bankruptcy, OneWeb announced it will launch 36 satellites in December as part of its satellite internet constellation.
Enabling companies to communicate and task their satellites is critical infrastructure for the space economy. Recognizing this, Amazon has launched Amazon Ground Services (AWS Ground Station) as a managed service that will compete with other ground station networks. Not to be left out, Microsoft later launched Azure Orbital, directly competing with Amazon’s offering.
Over $17 billion of equity investments have been made in space companies during 2020, of which ~$450 million went to early stage companies (Series A and earlier funding rounds). Investments in space infrastructure (e.g., launch service providers) drove much of the funding totals. Virgin Galactic and Momentus have both gone public through Special Purpose Acquisition Companies.
While COVID-19 caused a temporary disruption in launches during March and April, the overall commercial space industry has continued to grow. Space Capital and other investors believe the space industry will play an increasingly important role in the post-COVID world.
Daniel Mater is a strategy consultant in Chicago, IL. He worked at Planet Labs and is an alumni of the International Space University’s Space Studies Program.
Sources: Gunter’s Space Page, SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Space Capital