The space-exploration genre is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the American economy, and the industry is poised to explode.
But it’s one with a serious, potentially damaging, downside: Many big names are backing away from the space-building process.
“There is a lot of fear in the industry that it will be too expensive to build space-based products,” said Mike Wigdor, cofounder and CEO of SpaceIntel, a company that builds satellites for NASA.
“If you’re looking at launching a satellite from Earth, there’s a lot less risk to getting it there.
The market is just not there yet.”
For many years, the industry has been the source of enormous revenue for NASA, thanks to a $5 billion contract from SpaceX to launch a series of satellites for the agency.
In the space sector, SpaceX has built up a reputation for delivering satellites at a fraction of the cost of traditional rocket companies.
But the launch vehicle industry has struggled to develop its own commercial launch vehicles, despite decades of experience.
So, with the space market still in its infancy, companies like SpaceIntel have started developing and launching their own commercial rockets.
In their new book, The Rocket Engine of Tomorrow, Wigdors team explores how they’re building a space-driven engine for NASA and how they’ve taken advantage of a loophole in federal law.
“The space-engine business has been a dream since the first SpaceShipOne rocket exploded in 1972,” Wigds team writes.
“It is not only one of NASA’s most popular and innovative programs, but also one of its most challenging.”
Wigdfors team’s research suggests that the rocket engine business model isn’t working out for NASA at all.
“We’re finding that there’s not a lot happening in the space engine market,” he said.
“Not one big company, not one big satellite, not even one big commercial rocket is going to be developing a commercial rocket for NASA in the near future.”
A few things are working for the space industry in this space age, Wigs team says.
First, the market is rapidly growing.
The United States is the world’s second-largest space market, after China, and by 2020, the country will have a whopping 21,500 satellite launches, according to the Space Association.
The space industry is also finding it’s a lucrative one.
In 2017, SpaceX made more than $300 million in revenue from the launch of satellites, according the company’s latest quarterly report.
And in 2020, Boeing made $1.9 billion in revenue in the launch market.
Wigsons team found that the space community has been successful in keeping costs low for companies like SpaceX, Boeing, and others by building smaller, smaller rockets.
For instance, SpaceIntel is using a new engine to build its first spacecraft for NASA’s Mars exploration program, called the Mars 2020 rover.
In 2018, Space Intel began the process of building a large rocket that would lift off from Cape Canaveral and launch Mars 2020, according a company statement.
“With a smaller rocket, we can more easily launch small payloads that are able to get back to Earth in the event of a disaster,” said the statement from SpaceIntel.
In short, Wiggds team believes that the company is building a rocket that can be scaled up to take on large launches.
But if the company fails to get a large launch contract, it will likely have to go back to its traditional launch vehicle business model.
“When we talk about the market size, it’s going to change,” Wigs said.
SpaceX is already in talks with Boeing about a contract for a larger rocket.
But even if the companies decide to work together on a larger vehicle, WIGDORS team says that SpaceX and Boeing are unlikely to enter into a commercial launch partnership.
NASA already has several other commercial launch companies that have a history of launching large amounts of payloads into orbit.
But Wigdin’s team says there are few options available to companies like NASA in this environment.
For example, the current commercial launch market isn’t very large and not everyone wants to invest in a rocket to launch big payloads.
“At the end of the day, you’re just not going to get the commercial market to scale,” said Wigdal.
“That’s not going do NASA any good.
So we’re trying to do things differently.”
A SpaceX spokesperson said that “SpaceX has the right infrastructure and know-how to build and launch spacecraft safely and economically.”
A Boeing spokesperson said, “We are committed to making space a reality for NASA as quickly as possible.
We believe that a viable, sustainable, and competitive space-launch business model for the foreseeable future is in the best interest of NASA.”
A NASA spokesperson declined to comment for this story.
In addition to SpaceIntel and its other commercial rockets, Wrigdor says his team is working with a company called NextSpace, a startup