Charting a course in a new market is challenging. Understanding the prevailing dynamics can help. While the New Space economy is certainly a place of rapid change, there are features that — if understood — can help investors and companies maximize prospects for success. An important insight is that the New Space economy has evolved in a series of successive waves that differ in important respects, including the way private capital is deployed, the locus of market activity, and key success factors. Viewed in this light, the market has rapidly progressed through two waves and is now entering into a third. Succeeding in this new phase of the market requires understanding how it has developed and where it is now heading.

The First Wave of the New Space economy was perhaps most importantly about proving that private capital and entrepreneurial business efforts could succeed in this market that had formerly been the exclusive domain of governments, and in the course, dramatically reducing the cost of launch. Several private launch companies were founded in the first decade of the century, but the real impact was driven by SpaceX. In 2008 Falcon 1 became the first private liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit. Many factors contributed to SpaceX’s success, with the core being the relentless elimination of cost, first through engineering and production, and then through reuse. A new era opened in 2010 with Falcon 9 slashing the cost per kilogram to LEO by one-half compared to Long March and two-thirds or more to Atlas and Delta.

This success unleashed the Second Wave, primarily characterized by the enthusiastic expansion of private capital and entrepreneurial effort across the space economy. By 2013 two dramatic inflection points were reached: The number of commercial launches exceeded those for government customers, and launches to LEO exceeded those to GEO. Again, SpaceX played a leading role with the Starlink constellation. But this time, the diffusion of innovation extended to many more participants across a range of applications. New partnerships formed between traditional space players and new entrants with innovative capabilities and low-cost structures. Government agencies began to look at commercial providers and move towards new architectures in LEO, underscored by the creation of the U.S. Space Force and the NASA Commercial LEO Destinations program, reinforcing private investment theses.

Today we are seeing the advent of a Third Wave of the New Space economy, characterized by both challenges and opportunities. The drop off in private investment in space since 2021 is in part attributable to global headwinds and corresponding effects in all markets. But the New Space economy is also seeing a qualitative shift as enthusiasm is tempered by realities, including unclear levels of government funding beyond initial demonstrations, abundant competition, and inevitable technical challenges. But the news is not all bad. In fact, the current market presents a number of opportunities to those who know what to look for and where to find it. Here are four approaches that can help investors and businesses succeed in the present phase of the New Space economy:

  • Outsource, selectively. In the first wave, SpaceX vertically integrated to control costs because much of the existing launch supply chain was burdened with excessive overheads and low utilization. Now there are opportunities to drive further savings with efficient and focused 2nd wave suppliers who can deliver horizontal economies of scale.
  • Acquire proven assets, where affordable. Not all companies launched in the 2nd wave have a viable path to success. However, many have advanced valuable capabilities through several stages of maturation and risk reduction. Smart buyers will find opportunities to eliminate gaps and enhance differentiators by bringing key assets in-house at reasonable prices.
  • Partner with terrestrial market leaders. As the space economy matures, the insights of adjacent terrestrial goods and services businesses will become increasingly relevant. Mature market mindsets, processes, and tools related to customer focus, honing value proposition, controlling CAPEX and OPEX, and managing risk will be as important as understanding the physics and engineering of the space environment.
  • Look globally. While much of the attention in the New Space economy has been focused on the U.S. given the magnitude of U.S. government budgets and the vibrant private capital ecosystem, there are many global players with exciting capabilities — both in space and terrestrial markets — that can contribute to successful space ventures. There are complexities with incorporating non-US elements into offerings to the US government, but there is real value-creation opportunity that can make it worth the effort.

The 3rd Wave of the New Space economy is a natural step in the market’s maturation. Some players are proving themselves and enabling continued efficiency gains. Others that are not viable will naturally provide opportunities for healthier players to take their early efforts forward under new management. Proven business models and strong players from around the world will connect and integrate space into the rest of the economy. Exciting times are ahead!

Stan Crow is an astronautical engineer with 35 years’ experience in space, technology, and business roles in the US Air Force, Northrop Grumman, and McKinsey and Company’s Aerospace and Defense Practice. He now advises businesses and investors globally. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the World Space Week Association.

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Stan Crow is an astronautical engineer with 35 years of experience in space, technology, and business roles in the U.S. Air Force, Northrop Grumman, and McKinsey and Company's aerospace and defense practice. He now advises businesses and investors globally.