Investing in Space: A year of coverage in review

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Greg Robinson / Virgin Orbit

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Overview: So long, 2023

Before setting personal goals for a new year, I always find that reflecting on highlights from the year gone by makes me appreciate the effort I’ve spent and helps refine where to build.

2023 may not have been a banner year for the space industry, but it certainly was a banner year to be a space reporter. I struggle to think of any year since I started covering this business that had higher highs and lower lows. Here are my personal top five stories from this year, in reverse order:

5. FAA balancing air and space

 In a comprehensive feature, my colleague Leslie Josephs and I dove into the data around how the Federal Aviation Administration is navigating planes and rockets battling for the same airspace. The year-after-year increase in space missions shows no signs of slowing, so cataloging where the FAA has made improvements (“Since 2018, the FAA has cut airspace closures in half for launches”) and where there’s still demand for more changes (“The space industry doesn’t have a formalized system for supporting air traffic control”) felt like a worthwhile watermark.

4. Pentagon rocket sweepstakes

The rocket launching business is often noted for being one of, if not the, most difficult subsectors when it comes to making money in the space industry. Hopefully CNBC readers came away understanding a bit more this year about the most lucrative opportunity in the launch business: The Pentagon’s NSSL awards. With Phase 2 orders winding down and Phase 3 awards about to begin, 2023 marked a significant shift in how the U.S. military buys rockets. That’s especially important for companies vying to be in Phase 3 after Phase 2 saw Space Force dole out over $5.6 billion for 48 launches

3. India the new space superpower

We called this out in June, and I think the rest of the world took notice two months later: India landing a cargo mission on the moon isn’t a one-off, but instead represents the country’s replacement of Russia among space superpowers. The U.S. and China are the clear No. 1 and No. 2. Thankfully for American ambitions (and businesses) in space, the new No. 3 is keen to work with NASA and industry for a variety of upcoming Indian missions.

2. Starship’s first launch

One of the most insane work weeks of my career naturally culminated with the first launch attempt of the world’s largest rocket: I bounced between Texas and Colorado multiple times while the annual Space Symposium conference – and its many obligations for a space reporter – coincided with SpaceX’s attempt to launch Starship. Topping off that week with a killer blog and TV hits, live from South Padre Island, on the minute-by-minute of Starship’s flight was exhausting but satisfying. 

1. Virgin Orbit goes down

I’ve never been more on the front lines of a business story than I was while covering the Virgin Orbit saga. I’ll never forget walking through D.C.’s Union Station, searching for the Amtrak back to NYC while on the phone with sources who were just told the company was pausing operations as leadership hunted for a funding lifeline. The weeks to come were no less chaotic, as Virgin Orbit was forced to fully shut down and was sold off in bankruptcy.

Honorable mentions among other news we broke at CNBC: Crunchtime for Sierra Space, Kathy Lueders joins SpaceX, Blue Origin gets a new CEO, and Firefly’s undertaking of the challenging Victux Nox mission.

Thank you to the trust of sources and readers for another great year covering the space business for CNBC. See you in 2024!

Programming note: Investing in Space will be on hiatus next week. Watch for the next edition on Jan. 11. Happy New Year!

What’s up

  • Firefly’s fourth Alpha launch falls short of intended orbit, as an issue relighting the rocket’s second stage meant the small Lockheed Martin satellite deployed but is likely to re-enter the atmosphere within a month or so. Firefly confirmed that communication with the demonstration satellite was established and it began mission operations. – Firefly
  • Falcon 9 booster tips over after historic 19th mission: The SpaceX rocket completed 19 launches and landings successfully, the most of any in the company’s fleet to date, but toppled over due to rough seas. – Spaceflight Now
  • NASA astronauts test Starship elevator concept, which the agency says was a sub-scale mockup to demonstrate transporting equipment and crew between Starship’s habitable area and the lunar surface. – NASA
  • Elon Musk dampens Starlink IPO talk, saying “I don’t think it’s worth going public until you have an extremely stable and predictable revenue stream.” He added that fundraising is not an issue for his companies, because “I can equity or debt fund just about anything at this point.” Musk added that “at SpaceX we never think about the quarter” and “we don’t think about the stock price.” – SpaceNews

Industry maneuvers

  • Blue Origin, Cerberus and Textron reportedly vying to buy ULA, as bids come in for the rocket-building joint venture currently owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. – Wall Street Journal
  • Japanese startup Axelspace raises $44 million from nine venture and corporate investors, with the company looking to expand its satellite production and imagery offerings. – Axelspace

Market movers

  • With one trading day of the year to go, Rocket Lab tops space stocks in 2023: The company’s shares are up 55% year to date, topping the gains of Redwire, up 51%, and Mynaric, up 50%. Rocket Lab’s stock shot up over the past week after disclosing that it won a $515 million U.S. military contract to build 18 satellites. – Rocket Lab

Boldly going

  • Erik Sallee departing as Intuitive Machines’ CFO, while Peter McGrath was promoted to Chief Operating Officer having previously served as vice president of business development. Sallee is leaving, effective Jan. 26, “for personal and family reasons and to pursue other business opportunities,” the company said. Steven Vontur will serve as interim chief financial Officer. – Intuitive Machines

On the horizon

  • Dec. 28: SpaceX Falcon Heavy launches Space Force’s X-37B spaceplane on the USSF-52 mission from Florida.
  • Dec. 28: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Starlink satellites from Florida.
  • Dec. 30: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Starlink satellites from California.
  • Jan. 3: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches the Ovzon-3 satellite from Florida.

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