Investing in Space

NASA budget reveals even more reliance on private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin

Key Points
  • NASA's 2020 budget request is a boon to companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, space industry experts told CNBC.
  • Administrator Jim Bridenstine plans to "increase the use of commercial partnerships" to accelerate the White House plans, the budget said.
  • "I think SpaceX certainly are going to be big winners as a result of this budget," Chad Anderson, CEO of Space Angels, told CNBC.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk speaks with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, along with astronauts Victor Glover, Doug Hurley, Bob Behnken and Mike Hopkins, in front of the company's Crew Dragon capsule.
NASA | Joel Kowsky

The White House unveiled NASA's 2020 budget on Monday and the $21 billion requested from Congress reveals new opportunities for private space companies to earn lucrative future awards, several industry analysts told CNBC.

This is the first budget request under NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. On a reference basis alone, the budget uses the word "commercial" almost twice as much as last year. That is a boon to companies like SpaceX, as CEO Elon Musk has said his company wants to be a part of returning cargo and humans to the moon's surface, as NASA aims to do.

"This is potentially good for SpaceX, given it looks like on the lunar side they're emphasizing commercial companies more," Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas told CNBC. Jonas is widely followed due to his early call on electric automaker Tesla and helped form a team of analysts to focus on investment opportunities from the space industry at Morgan Stanley.

NASA increasing funding, looking to colonize moon by 2028
NASA increasing funding, looking to colonize moon by 2028

In comments on NASA TV after the budget release, Bridenstine gave the recent SpaceX Demo-1 mission as an example for how reusable rockets and spacecraft are how NASA can "drive down costs" and "increase access" to space, he said. Bridenstine contends that NASA needs "reusability in the entire architecture" of its space exploration plans, as SpaceX has shown how re-using rockets for launches to low Earth orbit has proven cost effective.

"I think SpaceX certainly are going to be big winners as a result of this budget," Chad Anderson, CEO of Space Angels, told CNBC.

"Increase the use of commercial partnerships"

NASA wants to accelerate its plans to establish a permanent human presence on the surface of the moon. And Bridenstine plans to "increase the use of commercial partnerships" to do that, the budget said.

"Everything to this point has put the moon first in this administration. It looks like they're going all in," Anderson said.

NASA's budget sets aside $363 million specifically to help companies develop "a large lunar lander" to take cargo and astronauts to the moon's surface. This funding and development model is similar to the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, Anderson said, "which is incredibly encouraging." That NASA program ended in 2013, after SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (now a division of Northrop Grumman) successfully developed new spacecraft and rockets for NASA to send cargo to the International Space Station.

Musk's space company, as well as Jeff Bezos' venture Blue Origin, are both developing spacecraft capable of landing on the moon. There is "no doubt" both companies are working with NASA on landing on the moon and other planetary bodies, Anderson said.

Mike French, Bryce Space and Technology senior vice president, also pointed to SpaceX and Blue Origin as top contenders for NASA lunar lander funds. He said there will be "an interesting mix of traditional contractors" such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin also competing for NASA awards.

Additionally, NASA has nine companies competing for up to $2.6 billion in lunar transportation contracts. Known as the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program (CLPS), the effort would send small payloads and robots to the moon's surface as early as 2021.

"CLPS is the most significant near term revenue stream for startups," French said.

Under CLPS, the agency will award multiple contracts for lunar missions over the next 10 years.

"Anyone working on lunar landers is also going to benefit," Anderson said.

Private rockets for exploration missions

NASA wants to set aside $10.7 billion for its lunar plans. But the way NASA expects to execute those plans continues to change, as billions of dollars in cost overruns and years of delays have made the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft less viable.

"It sounds like people are fed up with these big projects like SLS, that are late and over budget," Anderson said.

In the past year alone, NASA has moved two of its missions from SLS to commercial options: Lunar Gateway's "power and propulsion element" and the Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter, planned for 2023.

"[NASA has] had calls to arms for ideas and for the commercial community to be a part of improving efficiency and reducing waste while achieving a fast time horizon," Jonas said. "Seems to be the result of a bit of soul-searching amongst the bodies who determine these budgets."

The door is now open for commercial rockets to launch these missions. "Europa going commercial is a big deal," French said, as the launch contract represents a significant piece of $600 million that's up for grabs. NASA estimates that switching from SLS to a private rocket will save over $700 million.

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket is one currently available option but French believes "anyone who thinks they can will come" to NASA with a proposal for the mission, he said. That means NASA may consider Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket, United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket or Northrop Grumman's OmegA rocket, according to French.

"The big ship is slowly starting to tack and change course and these are the early signs that people are paying attention," Anderson said. "The private companies' capability is real and comes at a cheaper price point."

Business in Earth's orbit

NASA still plans to end funding of the International Space Station six years from now. The administration is looking at making use of privately-built habitats in orbit, a key part of the commercialization of space, French said. Those include NanoRacks, Bigelow Aerospace and Axiom Space.

French also thinks there's "a slightly different cloud" of space assembly and manufacturing companies that will benefit from NASA's budget, he said. Those companies are the likes of Made in Space and Maxar Technologies-owned SSL, according to French.

A small, $3 million line item called the Communications Services Program was a fresh addition to NASA's budget. The new program would replace the multi-billion dollar "government-owned Space Network with commercial communications services and capabilities," NASA budget said. While it's not much funding now, TMF Associates analyst Tim Farrar said it could be a new revenue stream for satellite communications companies.

"Ultimately it would involve expenditures certainly in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year," Farrar told CNBC.

Farrar believes three major telecom companies would likely benefit from the Communications Services Program: Intelsat, SES or Inmarsat.

"If someone wins a contract for a commercial replacement it would be a significant amount of money," Farrar said.

While SpaceX, OneWeb and others are developing new high-speed communication satellite networks, Farrar said he is "not convinced this is a great opportunity" for those low Earth orbit networks. The one space communications startup Farrar thinks may "make a big play" for NASA's network is Audacy, he said.

"The core of their pitch is to be a data relay system," Farrar said of Audacy.