The final frontier is open for business

·3 min read

A drastic reduction in launch costs is helping fuel a vision of space not just as a realm of exploration or science, but real industry.

The big picture: Over the short term, space will likely become a place to manufacture high-precision, high-value products that benefit from a microgravity environment. But in the future, as Jeff Bezos noted in July after returning from his space trip, there could be a push to move heavy, polluting industries to operate in space.

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By the numbers: Space startups brought in a record $7.6 billion in investment last year, and a July report from Space Capital found $9.9 billion was invested in all space companies in the second quarter of 2021 alone.

  • "We're in the second golden age of space, and it's going to be a sustained golden age, because it's not just driven by government activity but commercial activity," says Andrew Rush, the COO and president of the aerospace company Redwire.

Background: Space enthusiasts have long dreamed of not just exploring but building in space. But the sheer cost of moving material and people into orbit kept those dreams in the realm of science fiction.

  • Thanks largely to the efforts of private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, the cost of launching payloads into orbit has fallen drastically over the past decade, opening up space to smaller players that were previously locked out of the industry.

  • "As it's getting cheaper and cheaper per kilogram to launch into space, it makes logical sense for super high value, very expensive things per kilogram to be made in space and brought back down to Earth," says Josh Wolfe, co-founder of the VC firm Lux Capital, which has invested in multiple space startups.

Years of work on the International Space Station have shown microgravity can hugely benefit the manufacturing of high-value materials including fiber optics, drugs, semiconductors and even bioprinted human organs.

  • "It's akin to Amazon Prime, but your stuff is not manufactured in China," Wolfe says. "It is manufactured above China in space."

  • Varda Space Industries in July closed on a $42 million Series A round to fund its efforts to build a manufacturing platform in space for products made most efficiently in microgravity.

What to watch: Improvements in 3D printing would allow more of the work needed to build out commercial infrastructure to be done in orbit, rather than lugged back and forth with rockets from Earth.

  • Made in Space, which is owned by Redwire, put the first 3D printer in space in 2014, and is working on developing an orbital platform for NASA that could assemble structures in space.

  • Such advances can help space industry untether as much as possible from Earth, notes Joe Landon, VP for advanced programs development at Lockheed Martin.

  • "Eventually the only thing we'll launch from space is going to be people, because everything else we're going to build and find resources for outside Earth's gravity," he says.

The catch: Space, as the saying goes, is hard, and as the rate of commercial launches ramps up, so does the chance that something will go wrong.

  • On Thursday, the FAA grounded Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic after reporting in the New Yorker showed the billionaire's sub-orbital flight on July 11 apparently drifted off course.

  • The space industry faces the "challenge of scaling up quickly and growing quickly," says Joe Schloesser, senior director at ISN, which helps manage contractor safety. "Anyone who has seen that in other industries knows there can be repercussions."

The bottom line: Business has thrived on exploiting frontiers, and space is the grandest one of all.

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