August 6, 2021

The Amazonification of Space Begins in Earnest

Smaller space ventures are even more wide open to entrepreneurs.

“If you look at where space is today, especially with respect to lower Earth orbit activities, it really is similar to the early days of the internet,” said West Griffin, chief financial officer of Axiom, a start-up aiming to build the first commercial space station.

The commercialization of space began during the 1990s dot-com boom but took much longer to reach fruition. The flights this month hark back to 1996, when the nonprofit organization X Prize announced a contest: $10 million to the first nongovernmental organization to build a reusable spacecraft that could take someone to an altitude of 100 kilometers, or 62.5 miles, and then do it again in less than two weeks.

The winning design in 2004 turned out to be SpaceShipOne in an effort led by Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer who previously designed the Voyager airplane that flew around the world without stopping or refueling. It was financed by Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft who died in 2018.

The X Prize piqued Mr. Branson’s interest, too. He trademarked “Virgin Galactic Airways” in 1999, and licensed the SpaceShipOne technology. Mr. Branson hoped that a larger version could begin commercial flights within three years. It took 17 years instead.

A swelling ecosystem of start-ups is attempting to commercialize space by building everything from cheaper launch technology to smaller satellites to the infrastructure making up the “pickaxes and shovels” of space’s gold rush, as Meagan Crawford, a managing partner at the venture capital firm SpaceFund, puts it.

“People are looking around going: ‘There’s this robust space industry. Where did that come from?’” Ms. Crawford said. “Well, it’s been built methodically and purposefully, and it’s been a lot of hard work over the last 30 years to get us here.”

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