Investing in Space

Investing in Space: Temper your expectations

The company's RS1 rocket stands in preparation for launch from Kodiak, Alaska.
ABL Space

CNBC's Investing in Space newsletter offers a view into the business of space exploration and privatization, delivered straight to your inbox. CNBC's Michael Sheetz reports and curates the latest news, investor updates and exclusive interviews on the most important companies reaching new heights. Sign up to receive future editions.

Overview: Temper your expectations

As we head into the final weeks of the year, I've been thinking about space business lessons to be learned from 2022. One that repeatedly comes up is the need for tempered expectations when it comes to schedule targets across the industry. I spoke to a dozen insiders this week, from investors to executives, about why delays matter. My takeaway: Unrealistic timelines can have a ripple effect, from eating up cash to damaging a firm's reputation — notching up the stakes.

Take, for example, an unabashed thread by ABL Space on its progress toward the debut launch of its RS1 rocket. The thread dates back to August – and lays bare the realities of any space hardware trying to get off the ground: Delays arise from far and wide, whether it's regulatory holdups, leaky valves or anything in between.

And I'm not picking on ABL here. I admire the way they're communicating their progress.

Delays on the hardware side of the industry are widespread. It doesn't matter whether you're building small, medium or big rockets; manufacturing satellites or spacecraft components or lunar landers; working toward a debut or the most active operator in the world. Delays can last days, months or years – but the reality is that target dates that are more than a year away are rarely hit in the space business.

Is space unique to other industries in missing timelines? Not necessarily. But what makes space different from others, insiders say, is its combination of technological maturity and complexity, mixed with exceptional capital intensity and an unforgiving risk profile. Salaries need to be paid each month, even if your rocket is still on the ground, and work needs to move forward, even if your satellite is tumbling in orbit and unrecoverable. Companies who suffer failures in space face the fact that the asset's value is gone, with only a data trail left behind to learn from. (NASA's repair efforts on the Hubble telescope stands out as a very expensive exception.) 

Company leadership should be ambitious and optimistic about deadlines – but expectations need to be managed clearly and realistically, as well. 

And as a couple insiders emphasized, investors and customers should have tempered expectations around what remain largely bespoke products with heavy technical complexity, and look to history as their guide for what development looks like. The best space companies set targets that are achievable, and keep cushion on their balance sheet for when they aren't. 

What's up

  • SpaceX unveils 'Starshield' military variation of Starlink satellites in a new business line for government customers, advertising additional capabilities such as imagery and "hosted payloads," and marketed as the center of an "end-to-end" offering for national security. – CNBC
  • The FCC gives a key Starlink authorization for SpaceX to begin deploying up to 7,500 of its Gen2 satellites, a crucial step as the company aims to expand its internet service. SpaceX also filed a request to put payloads on 2,016 of those new satellites, for its direct-to-phone service with T-Mobile. – CNBC / Read more
  • Orion zips past the moon again as Artemis I heads back to Earth: The capsule made its second-near pass above the lunar body, giving stunning live views along the way. – Watch
  • Blue Origin and Dynetics lead teams bidding for NASA's second crewed lunar lander. Most notably, Northrop Grumman switched teams for the Sustaining Lunar Development (SLD) contract bid – having been with Blue Origin's for the Human Landing System (HLS) bid in 2019, but joining Dynetics for the second round – while Boeing and Astrobotic joined the team of Jeff Bezos' company. – Blue Origin / Leidos
  • Relativity rolls out Terran 1 rocket for inaugural launch. CEO Tim Ellis posted photos of the mostly 3D-printed rocket as the company preparers for its first mission from Florida.  – Tim Ellis

Industry maneuvers

  • New leadership incoming at NASA's astronaut office: Chief of the Astronaut Office Reid Wiseman stepped down on Nov. 14 so he could be eligible for future flight assignments, an agency spokesperson told CNBC. Astronaut Drew Feustel was his deputy, and has been the acting chief since then. A search for a new permanent chief of the office is underway, with a window for applications closing on Dec. 13. – NASA / Read more
  • Astra's highly touted chief engineer Benjamin Lyon resigns, with CEO Chris Kemp saying the company is making leadership changes "to execute faster" as it manufactures spacecraft engines and aims to get a new rocket off the ground by next year. – CNBC
  • NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn leaves the agency and joins Sierra Space: Marshburn spent 28 years at NASA, with three spaceflights, and comes to Sierra as its Chief Medical Officer for the company's human spaceflight center and astronaut training academy. – NASA / Sierra Space
  • AST SpaceMobile closes $75 million capital raise. Its book-runner B. Riley has about a month to allot up to $11.25 million worth in additional share sales. – AST
  • Space data and analytics company Slingshot Aerospace raises $40.9 million, in a funding round led by Sway Ventures and joined by others including Lockheed Martin Ventures and Draper Associates. – Slingshot Aerospace
  • Satellite broadband startup E-Space to acquire CommAgility for $14.5 million, which develops radio frequency modules. E-Space sees the acquisition as a key addition of software and talent, with the company having launched a trio of demonstration satellites earlier this year. – SpaceNews
  • Maxar selects Sierra Space for solar power contract, with the deal covering panels on 16 satellites. – Sierra Space
  • NASA names Bradley Flick as director of California's Armstrong center, after he served in the role as acting director since July. – NASA
  • Momentus CFO Jikun Kim resigns, effective Jan. 6, with a successor to be named later. CEO John Rood thanked Kim for his time, wishing "him all the best as he pursues new endeavors." – Momentus
  • Satellogic adds Matthew Brannen as VP of Legal, joining from point-of-sale financing company Sunlight Financial, where he was the director of corporate counsel. – Satellogic
  • Terran Orbital promotes Santina Michel to senior vice president and Chief Human Resources Officer. Previously, Michel was a managing director at Terran Orbital CEO Marc Bell's investment firm. – Terran Orbital

On the horizon

  • Dec. 8: SpaceX's Falcon 9 launching OneWeb satellites, the first mission in the unlikely but necessary collaboration between the companies.
  • Dec. 11: SpaceX's Falcon 9 launches ispace M1 lunar lander, beginning the Japanese company's first moon mission.
  • Dec. 11: NASA's Orion capsule splashes down in the Pacific Ocean, to conclude the Artemis I mission.
  • Dec. 13: Arianespace's Ariane 5 launches satellites for Intelsat and Eumetsat from French Guiana.
  • Dec. 13: SpaceX's Falcon 9 launches SES satellites from Florida.
  • Dec. 13: Rocket Lab's Electron launching HawkEye 360 satellites. Lifting off from Virginia, the mission marks the long-awaited first Rocket Lab launch from the U.S.