WASHINGTON – Despite a recent wave of layoffs and a five-week partial shutdown of the government, companies remain optimistic about overall prospects for the space industry next year.
During a panel discussion organized by the Space Flight Organization on January 30th, company executives, starting from launching a launch to an established satellite operator, talked about the state of the industry and their belief that it was ready for much faster growth in the near future .
"This is a great time," said Courtney Stade, director of government affairs for the small launch vehicle Vector. He cited comments made at a recent event by General Jay Raymond, the head of the space command's space command, who he called this current period "flexion" for the industry. "I think that what we witness in 2019 is a convergence of technologies, low costs, changes in the market and so on," said Stade.
However, this year did not start well for the industry. A five-week partial shutdown of the government, which ended at the end of January 25, stopped all except the critical activities in NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, all agencies involved in civil or commercial space operation.
Panellists admit that exclusion has hurt them. "We felt a pinch," said Andrew Rush, CEO and CEO of Made In Space, a company that develops orbiting technology at the International Space Station. He said the company, which does a lot of NASA's business, has a capital reserve on which it can rely.
"We somehow took our foot off the gas during engagement," he said. By switching off at least temporarily, "we put the thumb back on the pedal, but we do not shake it to the floor."
For other companies, disconnection delayed communications and started licenses. "When you close the government, things that take a lot of time will take longer," said Rebecca Coverville, senior vice president of Inmarsat.
Stadd said the exclusion is likely to delay the publication of the notice of the proposed regulation of revised launch rules for launch in order to direct the entire licensing process. These draft rules were to be published by the FAA on February 1. "The jury is out for what kind of collateral effects of exclusion will be," he said.
In the first few weeks of 2019, there are also several companies announcing layoffs, including SpaceX, Stratolaunch and Virgin Galactic. Panellists, however, did not see these layoffs as a sign of a wider decline in the industry in space.
"I do not think it's any signal," said Alan Herbert, vice president of business development and strategy for NanoRacks. "I think the market is still energetic. We hire people."
"With any industry, there is a cyclical nature of the different types of skills that are needed," says Cowhen Hirsch, urging companies to lay off some people and hire other people. "I think what we see in space is a priority."
Panelists, however, said that some markets could be too much for an even growing space industry. During a question and answer session, one member of the public asked about the prospect of asteroid excavation, as recently two companies were deployed, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources.
"For the extraction of asteroids or the utilization of space resources, it is even more important to be very disciplined as you approach the business model and whether this is the right time," said Rush. He argues that the work his company does to make the activities in the Earth's low orbit more sustainable can boost demand in the future for space resources.
"It's a sign of health in our community that there are people looking for a way through the horizon" in markets like mining asteroids, said Stade. But, he added, "there is often a tendency to sin the technical possibility of a market opportunity."