Some 90 miles north of L.A., in the flat of the desert, is a cluster of startups chasing the future. They’re working in the Mojave Air and Space Port, and they’re among a new class of entrepreneurial ventures that would have been virtually impossible at almost any other stage in history. They’re space and satellite-related startups. And they’re using the new, easier access to space-ready materials and tech to do better business.
They’re manufacturing components for other larger space-faring companies; building their own engines and rockets; sometimes even launching satellites into space. The knot of startup companies in the Mojave airport represent just a small part of the so-called ‘NewSpace’ startups that are popping up nationwide. There are other notable groups of companies in this same niche rising in Silicon Valley, Seattle, and even Tucson.
What Makes Space Startups Possible?
Space travel, launching rockets, and building satellites all used to be so expensive and research-intensive that only the most massive corporations or governments could even consider the proposition. But within the last decade or two, a few eccentric tech companies rose which were the pet-projects of billionaires. Tesla, Amazon, and Virgin are all good examples of companies that opened the conceptual doors to smaller companies shaking up big areas of business. And plenty of smaller startups began with the idea of servicing larger, well-moneyed corporations and economies of scale.
But it’s also true that all the requirements for space missions have become much cheaper and much more feasible from start to finish. From new synthetic materials that make up rocket and satellite parts and components, production methods, engineering capabilities, and access to computing make it easy to build small satellites, for example, and it’s relatively easy to deploy them into space on large launch missiles. In the past, a traditional satellite would be roughly two stories tall, weigh literal tons, and cost millions to construct. Today, functional satellites can weigh under 50 pounds, cost less than six figures to build, and perform better than larger, older models.
The Making of an Industry
The NewSpace rush hasn’t been a small one, and isn’t limited to the U.S. There are plenty of Japanese startups expanding their programs into parts of southeast Asia, and a Spanish startup even aims to make Europe’s first re-usable rocket. And NewSpace Global, an industry analyst for space-related startups, pegs the number of new space-related companies at just shy of 1,000. That’s almost a tenfold growth since 2011, where the number of small companies pursuing space-related business was closer to 100.
Those same analysts estimate over $10 billion wrapped up in these various ventures, with more to come as more of these startups begin reaching their goals. Even Google has come on board, which has invested hundreds of millions in acquiring some of these startups, and provided well over a billion in financing to many others. NASA has a growing part to play as well, and employs many of these smaller fish to assist with its larger launch efforts.
At one point, people tinkered with computers and the internet the same way individuals are now becoming able to ‘tinker’ with the idea of space travel and flight. From access to 3D printers which can help produce rocket parts to regional hacking and maker spaces where novices can learn the ins and outs of making space-ready rockets and satellites from more seasoned experimenters, the fact that even hobbyists have access to space is a good sign that space flight, travel, and exploration may see a big resurgence with the next generation. Sure, we’re a long way from living on the moon (or Mars for that matter), but that future is hardly off the table.