Forget the days of NASA, government budgets, and bureaucracy – space exploration today looks completely different than it did just a few decades ago as an increasing amount of entrepreneurs look to expand their portfolios by investing in rocket and satellite technology. These days, instead of government and public organizations planning the next mission and finding the best technology, it’s private startups breaking the mold on technology.
SpaceX Out Front
The largest private space organization is SpaceX, created and run by billionaire Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. It leads the pack in successful mission and money raised, with a recent announcement of a $1 billion buy-in from Google and Fidelity Investments in January.
The company is estimated to be worth $10 billion and has the potential to have a huge initial public offering, although Musk says that will never happen and that he intends to keep the company private.
SpaceX launched its first private rocket in 2007 and had its busiest year in 2014 with six launches. With SpaceX setting the stage, many space enthusiasts and savvy business people saw an opening for access to space that was much less expensive than it had ever been. Suddenly, the possibilities were endless for what private companies could do with a satellite and a rocket.
“What’s driving everything is SpaceX proving what they could do,” said Scott Nolan, an early SpaceX employee. “It unlocked a lot of interest in commercial space development. SpaceX took this Silicon Valley, startup approach to design and efficiency and applied it to aerospace.”
The New Space Race
SpaceX isn’t alone – the industry has grown more than six times its size since 2010 and now encompasses more than 800 global companies with more than $12 billion invested across the board. Startups range in purpose and mission from research and defense to travel, mining, and power. There are even angel investor groups focused solely on space exploration startups. But it’s more than just money – the increase in attention has drawn incredible skill as top scientists, engineers, researchers and more flock to space from the commercial sector.
The most famous space organization seems to be behind the new boon in exploration. Single retiring its space shuttle in 2011, NASA has turned to U.S. contractors to continue some of its work. One of the biggest contractors has been SpaceX, which has moved cargo and crew between earth and the International Space Station and racked up contracts for $4.2 billion
The knowledge power of the boom is incredible, with huge breakthroughs coming on a seemingly weekly basis. In a world where many young companies in other industries may go years before a huge announcement, space startups are definitely breaking the mold.
Streaming Satellites and Boosters
The biggest theme with the new wave of space exploration has been for things to be smaller, lighter, and less expensive. One of the biggest ideas to come from space entrepreneurs is for small satellites to stream and catch data or images. The first of these tiny satellites was constructed just three years ago and didn’t seem to catch on right away as many people were skeptical something so small could be so powerful and useful. However, the mini satellites have quickly gained steam and improved the technology – Planet Labs has raised more than $160 million and launched 73 global imaging satellites. Alongside these satellites come special boosters, computer programs, and many more components that need to work together for the success of the project.
The Future of Space Travel
What’s next for these groundbreaking companies? Maybe a trip to Mars. Musk has been open about his ambitions for interplanetary travel by SpaceX and is open to the possibility of building a colony on Mars; however, he realizes it is in the far distant future. In the shorter term, companies will work on making things stronger, smaller, and more durable. There’s also been a push towards crowd funding. The hope is that making satellites and propulsion systems smaller will help lower their costs.
Many insiders compare the current state of space exploration companies to the early stages of the Internet – private companies began to take over and the updates and possibilities rained down. Just as the Internet has become a ubiquitous part of our lives, so too could space travel become a somewhat normal occurrence within our lifetimes. For now, companies will continue researching, innovating, and growing. After all, the sky’s the limit.