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T-minus 10, nine, eight, seven,
six, five, four, three, two, one--
The space race isn't just global superpowers
duking it out for bragging rights
and technological supremacy anymore.
Private companies, lots of them,
are rushing to commercialize not just the final frontier,
but the act of getting there.
I am a sports guy, this is like March Madness to me.
It's one and done, I got one shot to get to the end
or else I'm either gonna fail, run out of money,
or be gobbled up by someone else.
And whoever figures out
how to make launch safe, affordable,
and convenient is going to take the next giant leap.
We choose to go to the moon in this decade
and do the other things,
not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
60 years into the space race,
the way we leave Earth has changed remarkably.
Zero, all engine running.
Liftoff, we have a liftoff, 32 minutes past the hour.
Space seemed like a vast, black desert,
but now we're ready to make the desert bloom.
I'm talking about opening space up to business,
to private enterprise.
Opening space up to commerce
and experimentation and development.
To improve the quality of life on Earth.
25 years after Ronald Reagan
signed the Commercial Space Launch act,
the desert has begun blooming.
I think if you're a young person in 1969
and you saw people walking on the moon,
and 50 years later, we still haven't gone back,
I think that's a little disappointing.
I think they took that, their hopes and dreams
of their youth, and are applying it to today's marketplace.
And I think they're having a fantastic success.
In the world of rocket launch,
there are two very distinct races going on.
The first are the large rocket companies
like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin.
Jeff Bezos has reportedly invested billions
already in Blue Origin and will invest billions more.
SpaceX has also raised billions of dollars
and acquired very large contracts from NASA as well,
in order to fund both development and operations
of its vehicles.
Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket.
But they aren't the only players in the game.
There's a heated race picking up
between small and medium launch companies.
There's a subset of the community
not named SpaceX, not named Blue Origin,
trying to figure out, okay, how we get there fast?
Companies like Rocket Lab,
Relativity, Firefly, and Virgin Orbit.
Right now, there are more than 100 small launch companies
competing not just to get to space,
but to see who can get there most reliably,
cheapest, and then repeat it over and over and over again.
And ideally, end up with their business in the black.
Because in time, new industries rely
on these launch companies getting payloads into orbit.
And any missteps can spell disaster.
Not just for a rocket, but an entire company.
There is a $200+ billion commercial space industry
right now today.
There are a couple of huge markets
that have been very profitable.
The most profitable is the satellite industry.
In 2018, the global space economy was estimated
to be around $360 billion.
$277 billion of that is the satellite industry,
which has actually grown over $100 billion
over the past decade.
And for those satellites to get to space,
they need to be launched on a rocket.
Global launches in 2018 increased by 46%
over the number of launches a decade ago.
In many respects, it's never been easier
to put a satellite into space,
in terms of the cost and the availability of rockets
to ride into orbit.
And a new era of smaller, cheaper satellite technology
is creating this boom.
Once a year,
out in a desert north Utah,
the Small Satellite or SmallSat Conference, comes to Logan.
It has all the trademark features of an industry trade show,
bright lanyards, tons of swag,
but the deals happening here are carving out
what the future of the space economy will look like.
I've been coming to this conference for 20 years
and seen it grow from 300 people to over 3,000.
So, it is exciting to see that transition
as we move into the next phase.
Traditional satellites are often
powerful behemoths, the size of school buses,
costing hundreds of millions,
if not billions of dollars to build.
Today, the proliferation of smallsats,
CubeSats, even nanosats,
can cost as little as $10,000,
and can be built with similar hardware
that goes into your cell phone.
They range from the size of a Rubik's Cube
up to about the size of a dorm room refrigerator.
And so that's a big difference.
And so, some of these launch ventures
want to launch a few dorm-size refrigerators,
and others want to launch dozens of CubeSats.
And so, they're trying to divide the market that way.
Those satellites are providing imaging of the Earth,
they're potentially providing telecommunications services,
and they're attracting quite a lot of investment
in 10s, hundreds of millions of dollars,
even billions of dollars.
The Earth's insatiable need for communications
and internet is really what's driving
this huge number of satellites that are going into orbit
in the next five to seven years.
There's gonna be thousands, if not 10s of thousands
of new satellites in orbit in the next five to seven years.
The question is, are they able to actually provide
business services that will be successful?
The idea is that entirely new
business models as well as revenue streams
will be propped up by the data these smallsats collect.
The imaging and data collected from these smallsats
will be used by everyone,
from hedge funds to telecom giants to the US government.
Just think of how much the photos you can get
with your Android or iPhone have improved
from the first generation to the current generation.
Similar things happening in smallsats.
Market research says smallsat manufacturing
will nearly double by 2020,
with nearly 8,000 new smallsats in space by 2026.
The issue is always, small satellites have
a lot of capability, but there's not a good,
affordable way to get them into orbit.
And that's where the small launch companies
see a promising business.
The fact that a small launch vehicle
is much cheaper in total than a large launch vehicle
on the order of five or $10 million,
as opposed to $50 to $100 million,
and there are more customers.
Say you have a smallsat
that you want to launch into orbit.
Think of the big companies like SpaceX as a bus,
and the small and medium launch companies
like Rocket Lab as a taxi.
With large launches, you're at the back of the bus,
after the needs of what's called the primary,
which is the main payload on the rocket,
like a big government satellite.
Your smallsat is just piggybacking off that primary
since they bought the majority of the rocket.
With small launchers like Rocket Lab,
you and your smallsat can dictate
more of your terms on when and how you'll fly.
And you'll pay for the whole ride.
So booking a taxi for a smallsat
gives you more flexibility about when
and exactly where you want to go into orbit.
But it's more expensive.
Sometimes a ride share on a big rocket
and the chance to save on your launch expense
is more suitable depending on the satellite,
its mission, and the budget.
Far more important is the orbital inclination
or the angle of the satellite's orbit
relative to the equator.
It's much easier to move a satellite
into a higher or lower orbit than to change its inclination.
And that's why all launch customers
have to decide how their mission priorities
and budget can align when choosing how to get to space.
It's getting to the point that hitching a ride
on the really big rockets,
it works for some people,
it doesn't work for all business cases.
And so you've got smallsat ventures that say,
we want our own rides.
Those customers will determine
which of these small rocket companies succeeds
and which of the companies will fail.
This is not the internet,
where you build up a huge userbase
and then you figure out how to monetize them later.
Launch doesn't work that way.
You've gotta built up a backlog of customers.
Out of the more than 120 small
and medium-size launch companies out there,
just one is successfully launching rockets
for customers right now.
And that is Rocket lab.
People can actually walk on up to us and we'll fly them.
That's a great competitive advantage to have over,
you know, folks that are still developing a vehicle.
Peter Beck's Rocket Lab has raised
over $280 million from outsider investors,
with a valuation of more than one billion dollars,
and is currently flying a rocket every 30 days.
It looked what the hardest thing to do
was to go from zero to first successful orbital flight.
But really, going from first successful orbital flight
through to producing one every month
has been an equal amount of stress and energy
and complexity and toughness.
We obviously, we've completed our test flights,
and moved into full commercial operations
with the first flight of its business time.
And then straight on the heels of that,
we flew our NASA mission, and now we're, you know,
we're building and launching one vehicle
every sort of 30 days, every month.
And while other rocket companies
are looking to build their customer base,
Rocket Lab can't meet the rising demand for launches.
Our biggest issue is we can't broaden out profits.
That is our challenge.
We've built four and a half acres of new factories
and, you know, we're pushing in every direction we can
to build more capacity.
We fear that there aren't, you know,
we are the only dedicated solution available
on the marketplace right now.
You know, at an affordable price.
And so, what we see, a tremendous amount of demand.
So the demand is there, that's not the issue.
The issue is figuring out how to provide reliability,
scale, and cadence, while keeping prices as low as possible.
And each company has its own approach.
Every company has a unique way to building their rocket.
You know, whether they're using liquid,
solids, fuels, or a combination of the two.
Whether they're 3D printing their stages,
everyone has their unique approach to getting to a rocket.
However, the bottom line is good business in space
is exactly like good business on Earth.
A focus on customers, incremental successes,
and a vision that's supported by a real business model
is what works in space, just as it works on Earth.
One of the companies who believes
they have a successful business model is Firefly,
a medium-size launch company based out of Austin, Texas.
So I'm gonna run through this part of the procedure, 'kay?
Please set baming,
press logic to the next pressure increment,
and and we'll go in 10 PSI increments,
starting from ambient,
with a window of one.
And so, in the next six months,
Firefly's gonna launch this rocket.
We've been working on it for years now,
and we're gonna have that cathartic moment
where we launch the rocket,
everything's gonna go great.
But the outlook for Firefly
wasn't always so rosy.
This is a very difficult business.
There are a lot easier ways to make money in the world
than building a rocket company.
And you have a lot of setbacks,
you have technical setbacks,
you have financial setbacks.
But the most challenging one for me
has been the financial setbacks.
Firefly, like many other rocket companies,
is familiar with financial setbacks.
Vector, one of the more well-known launch startups,
ran into financial woes in the summer of 2019,
and saw their CEO depart amid uncertainty
about the company's future.
Back in 2017, Firefly, then known as Firefly Space Systems,
was saddled with financial instability
and filed for bankruptcy.
That's when Silicon Valley investment fund
Noosphere Ventures swooped in, bought their assets,
and rebranded the company to Firefly Aerospace.
I've learned a lot about the types of investors
that you want to have involved in this.
That learning has made us, I think,
very strong to push through this time.
As an investor and a sort of, like, you know,
one of the financial sort of people behind the company,
I try to encourage the company to think
beyond simply building a product,
but building a business.
Thank God we went bankrupt, frankly.
We have a better product now.
I have a better partner,
who lets me do what I'm good at doing
and he funds the project,
and I'm not off, you know,
humping the dot com guys' legs,
please give me another $100,000.
Now, after two years of R&D,
they're about to launch their first rocket.
Our plan is to have five launches next year.
All five of them will be
from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
But the next thing is to start adding technology
as an established company, and reusability,
and continuing to drive the costs down.
And we wanna do things in a different way.
Companies like Firefly
are hard-pressed to differentiate themselves
to stand out to investors and attract customers.
We're differentiated by our payload class.
Even among small launchers, we are a big small launcher,
so, our first rocket, Alpha,
is capable of carrying a thousand kilograms,
whereas our competitors are more
in the 500 kilograms and less area.
That big a payload means they can
service bigger clients such as NASA
and other federal agencies like the US Air Force.
We are on track to be able to provide NASA
lunar lander capabilities,
landing on the moon in the 2021 timeframe
when these would typically be launched in early 2021.
Firefly has restructured
and rebuilt its organization from the ground up,
but the question remains
if they can remain competitive when it comes to price.
We currently have a backlog of about $1.3 billion,
and a pipeline of over three and a half billion dollars
for our launch services alone.
If we fly according to our projected flight rates,
we expect to be cashflow positive by the end of 2020.
We're very conscious of cost,
that's one of the fundamental tenets of Noospace,
so Firefly will try to be competitive with anyone.
And we take all competition seriously.
That competition comes not only
from other small and medium launch companies,
but large ones as well.
Like SpaceX, who announced a smallsat solution
priced as low as one million dollars
for payloads up to 150 kilograms.
Which equates to approximately $15,000 per kilogram
to put something in orbit.
Coincidentally, that is exactly the same
as the Firefly economics for our Alpha vehicle.
Firefly believes they can deliver
something that Elon Musk's space giant cannot.
Unlike SpaceX, where those satellites
will be one of many, quite possibly one of 60,
our partners will have the same unit economics,
but will have a much more custom,
dedicated offering, it could be one of four
or one of five satellites in our faring.
Ride share's not the best opportunity
for a lot of small satellite customers.
In some ways, it's like hitchhiking.
You don't get to go exactly where you want to go
and you don't get to go on your own time schedule,
and that's important to a lot of customers.
In five years' time,
Firefly plans to not just be launching a rocket,
but a family of rockets.
We are interested in building
a multi-billion dollar business.
And in order to do that,
we know that we need to be cost competitive
with whatever the market throws at us,
not just simply what the competition's doing today.
And one of those competitors
is in Long Beach, California.
Virgin Orbit is an offshoot
of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space company.
And while they're a medium-size launch company,
just like Firefly and Rocket Lab,
their approach to getting a rocket into orbit
is a bit different.
Virgin Orbit is a dedicated small satellite launch vehicle
that is seeking to revolutionize the small satellite market.
We're utilizing our flying launchpad,
it's a Boeing 747 400 aircraft that we modified,
and it has an attached rocket
under the left wing of the plane.
It's a two-stage rocket, liquid oxygen kerosene rocket.
It has been flown before and has many successes.
Some of those other successes
are by their sister company, Virgin Galactic,
who has used this launchpad drop technology
for space tourism instead of small satellites,
which they believe is a difference maker in the industry.
Everything we built around the air launch system
is meant to mitigate against, you know, long-term delays.
For example, an air launch system can fly
in most weather conditions.
Because we're air launch, our cadence is very quick,
so it only takes four to six hours
to really fuel the rocket, you know,
attach it to the plane, and take off on a mission.
And having that flexibility,
having that quick cadence turnaround time
is critical to making sure that payloads
can get to orbit when they wanna get there.
That flexibility is what most
small launch companies hope will set them apart.
That responsive rapid launch to exactly
where you want to go,
that appeals to government users.
Government missions, scientific missions,
government military missions,
government intelligence missions
are all exploring the potential for lower total cost
small launch vehicles that can do exactly
what they need, when they need it.
And without even having a successful
full-duration test launch,
Virgin Orbit already has a backlog of customers.
Of course, we see the market expanding.
There's a lot of potential out there.
So we certainly could see ourselves
providing even more launch support than,
between 20 and 24 a year,
and of course that is a more mid to long-term goal.
The future for companies like Rocket Lab,
Firefly, and Virgin Orbit looks promising.
But what about the hundreds
of smaller launch companies out there?
Will everybody survive?
Probably not.
There's not enough demand for 100 and some odd rockets
that are currently in development.
We absolutely believe that the window
to invest in launch has already closed.
There are some investors who made some
early good plays here.
That are going to work out very well,
but at this point,
the industry is well past that kind
of venture capital investment stage, in our opinion.
So, we see it shaking out to maybe 10 companies surviving.
The launch industry is unforgiving.
It's not very tolerant of failures.
On behalf of Arianespace,
I wish to express my deepest apologies
to our customers for the loss of their payload.
And telling them how sorry I am.
If you're having a bad run of luck,
you don't get a whole lot of patience out of the market
before people start using other rockets.
The technology of space activities is fascinating,
the technological challenges are extraordinary,
the competence that it requires to conduct operations
in space is intimidating.
The launch industry has an energized,
passionate collection of engineers,
venture investors, and designers
singularly focused on moving private enterprise
off the planet.
It's not just a new industry,
but a new way of seeing the world and working above it.
Once you have that cheap access to space,
now you have entirely new business models
that close that didn't before.
You have an entirely new cases for space as an environment.
You have an entire ecosystem of support services
that are developing to support those satellites
that are being launched in the next five to seven years.
And so, that has kind of unlimited amount
of economic development, economic growth possibility there.
You know, I like of liken where are right now
to the very first beginnings of the internet,
where were just starting to send emails.
That's really where we are in space,
we're just starting to send emails.
And if you think, if you go back, when, you know,
you just started sending emails and if I said to you
all of the stuff that was gonna occur
because of the internet, you wouldn't believe me, right?
You would think that's just crazy.
But that's where I think we're at right now,
is we've sent our first email,
and now space is opened up to innovators
to really try new things.
That's why perfecting the world of launch
is just the beginning.
Rockets aren't just providing a platform for spaceflight,
but a platform for innovation
as we figure out the business of how we get to space.
The next problem is where do we stay?
On the next episode of Giant Leap,
the International Space Station its nearing its retirement.
And NASA wants to open the door for commercial companies
to develop the technology and the business
to create our next space habitats.
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Space: The Final Business Frontier

69 Folder Collection
Isaac Lau published on December 29, 2019
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