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A new 'race to the moon' is about to take off among startups

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module ascent stage, with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. aboard, is photographed from the Command and Service Modules in lunar orbit in this July, 1969 file handout photo.

Chad Anderson is CEO of Space Angels, the world’s leading source of capital for entrepreneurial space ventures. Space Angels has invested in numerous space startups and conducts extensive market research into global startup activity and private funding within this emerging industry.

March 31 was supposed to be a landmark day for the private space industry. It was the official deadline for Google’s Lunar X Prize: the historic 10-year privately funded “race to the moon,” with top startups competing for a $30 million grand prize.

There was just one problem: None of the finalists were able to complete their spacecraft in the required time. Google eventually had to cancel the contest altogether.

While on the surface this may seem like a setback for space startups, in reality the X Prize still accomplished what it set out to do, which was to encourage space entrepreneurship and new pathways toward a more efficient, low-cost access to space.

Private launchers are coming online at a rapid pace.

Several of the Lunar X Prize finalists — most notably Astrobotic — achieved a number of critical milestones for lunar landing, mobility and imaging, which are especially remarkable when one considers the short amount of time and resources they had to accomplish such engineering feats. At least a couple of these startups are also on track to launch their moon landers and rovers in the next few years.

An artist’s illustration of Astrobotic’s CubeRover (foreground) and Peregrine lunar lander on the surface of the moon.

But more importantly, with or without the Lunar X Prize, the commercial space industry is speeding ahead at a record pace, and startups are definitely in the driver’s seat.

Between the landmark achievements by Blue Origin and SpaceX in successfully demonstrating reusable rocket systems to NanoRacks creating the first commercial airlock on the International Space Station, startups are achieving a number of critical “firsts” in the outer space market.

Over the next 10 to 15 years, they are likely to push the envelope even further.

Within five years, global commercial launch capacity will rival that of the government. This increased commercial launch capacity will further decrease the price of admission to space (estimated to be 36 percent less expensive than government launches, according to Space Angels) and create new demand for private launch pads around the world.

Lunar outposts are coming closer to reality

Startups are developing new capabilities for exploring the moon, delivering large cargo shipments on a regular basis and establishing fixed structures on the lunar surface. The moon itself will become a critical platform for deep space operations, serving as a combined launch pad and refueling station. Key operations by Astrobotic and others are already in the works, with mission dates scheduled for the next couple of years.

Global investment in space has surged since 2009. In 2017, private investment in space startups set an all-time high of $3.9 billion. (Screenshot/Space Angels)

As NASA begins its transition toward a Deep Space Gateway near the moon, earth-orbiting space stations will be taken over by commercial interests. Over the next decade, startups will create these in-space biospheres for astronauts and in-space manufacturing. One such company is NanoRacks which is already underway with a plan to repurpose the upper stages of rockets into habitable space station components.

Then there is the funding picture. Last year, private investment in space startups set an all-time high of $3.9 billion, according to Space Angels’ year-end investment report. This included private funding from over 120 venture capital firms, which is a 35 percent increase in the last two years.
Since 2009, the world’s space startups have raised a total of $12.8 million in private funding and achieved over $25 billion in exits, according to Space Angels’ research.

Startups are bringing incredible innovation to the space industry through new technologies, business models and efficiencies. In the next 10 to 15 years, we can expect to see significant disruption across the commercial space industry.