TAMPA, Fla. — Recent high-profile layoffs are only a short-term setback for a space industry on track for more unprecedented growth in workforce and revenues, according to panelists joining the Space Foundation’s quarterly investment discussion April 8.

Employment in the private space sector soared about 30% over the last five years compared with a rise of less than 10% for the United States overall, Kelli Ogborn, Space Foundation vice president of space commerce and entrepreneurship, said during the non-profit organization’s 39th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

However, the employment picture is less rosy in other areas of the space sector. 

Ogborn pointed to an announcement in February from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that it would lay off 530 employees, about 8% of its staff, following budget uncertainty for 2024.

Justin Cadman, co-CEO of research and consulting firm Quilty Space, said it is important to view NASA’s workforce woes through a broad lens.

Government investment in space in the United States and globally has grown dramatically over the last five years at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 10%, according to Quilty Space data.

“And so in that context, the recent budget pressure that we’ve seen is sort of a short-term blip in that longer-term growth trajectory,” Cadman said.

He said about $4 billion of venture investment also made its way to space companies in 2023, an order of magnitude greater than just 10 years ago.

“The growth that we’re seeing is pretty broad-based,” Cadman added, “and I think it reflects the secular trend in which there may be some blips and some short-term downturns.”

Ian Christensen, director of private sector programs for the Secure World Foundation, said the workforce expansion efforts of large commercial space players such SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper create more opportunities than ever for workers to move between organizations.

The space economy is currently valued at $546 billion, Space Foundation’s Ogborn said, and is on course to rise at least 41% to $772 billion by 2027.

Commercial help

History suggests much of the ongoing pressure on U.S. government space budgets will be more focused on the civil arena than national security, Cadman said during the panel.

However, he expects the U.S. government to continue pursuing innovation in the commercial market to alleviate funding challenges. 

Cadman pointed to how the DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit is getting $945 million in the defense spending bill Congress passed March 21, four times what was appropriated the prior year, in part to help identify commercial technologies with military applications.

“So the idea is that, by leveraging the features of our capitalist economy with entrepreneurial actors and deep capital markets, government can form a partnership that is more than the sum of its parts — and particularly in a constrained budgetary environment, it’s critical to be able to leverage that,” he said.

“That’s the way that I see a path forward to ensure ongoing space superiority.”

The U.S. government’s ability to draw from a vibrant network of domestic innovators is also a core strength over other space nations. 

China can marshal resources rapidly and in one single unitary direction, Cadman said, but being able to harness “innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, capital markets … can overtake anything that an authoritarian state can throw at you.”

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...