2019 Predictions

Becki and I aren’t forecasters. We gather, think, and write about, data. But all our data is from the past, no matter how close that past might be. We pay attention to things we don’t collect, though, because…

Becki and I aren’t forecasters. We gather, think, and write about, data. But all our data is from the past, no matter how close that past might be. We pay attention to things we don’t collect, though, because we think those are important. They provide context. With all that written, our “predictions” come from what we’ve seen in our data and some of the events that occurred last year. Some are fun, some are sad, and some of it may come true. As I said, we aren’t forecasters.

You’ve been warned.

John: Dedicated small satellite launchers will take a majority share of the small satellites launched in 2019

Through 2018, the majority of small satellites have been launched as “rideshares” on much larger space launch vehicles–meaning there’s a bigger payload that is the reason the space launch vehicle is launching. Sometimes these bigger payloads don’t take up the mass capability of a rocket, and so smaller satellites are invited to share the ride to orbit.

The drawbacks of this are obvious: the small ridesharing satellites may not be inserted in an optimal orbit. If the primary payload is delayed, then those small satellites might be delayed right along with it. Delays can kill small companies.

What’s changed is that Rocket Lab has joined the ranks of China’s few dedicated small satellite launch vehicles. The company finally conducted a commercial launch in December and is set on launching one launch vehicle a month, to start. Plus, the company will be using two launch facilities, one currently operational in New Zealand and one planned in the U.S.

Becki’s Response: Agreed. If companies do in fact operate according to incentives, small satellite launchers just make more and more sense.

Becki: The overall payload mass launched into space will decrease as CubeSats take over.

Moore’s law has a hand in space too. Hubble sends down 140 Gigabits of data each week; $60 and a quick search on Amazon will get you almost 115 times that amount of data storage (2 Terabytes = 16000 Gigabits; Hubble sends down 140 Gigabits). Satellite manufacturing is changing, and quickly.

Simply put, large satellites are inconvenient. Lots of hardware means lots of engineering and mission assurance. Then there’s the whole ‘getting to space’ element. Large satellites necessarily sponsor their own launches most of the time; they are too big and specialized to rideshare. Alternately, between 200 and 1,200 and CubeSats can fit in a single approximately 1,600 kg GPS IIF satellite (1U through 6U CubeSat buses as defined by CubeSat Lab standard).

We remember the days before modern USB standards came into practice. We’re transitioning similarly to the CubeSat standard. Not that there won’t be a role for large satellites, just that for an increasing number of applications, CubeSats make a lot more fiscal sense.

John: Small Satellites numbers continue growing

Small satellites are inexpensive to manufacture, and, while more expensive to launch, still considerably more affordable to operate overall. They will also get less expensive as manufacturing processes become buttoned down and more efficiencies are looked, and found, for during their construction. At the same time, these small satellites will gain more capability.

Companies, not just from the space industry, will likely find this combination compelling enough to experiment with some business plans.

John: SpaceX’s Starship Hopper prototype will succeed

SpaceX has done this before with its Grasshopper rocket. The company used Grasshopper to learn how to land rockets. The current crop of reusable Falcon 9 space launch vehicles probably would not exist today if not for Grasshopper. So, SpaceX, the company that decided to go big from Falcon 1 to Falcon 9, is now going bigger with its Hopper. And the company already knows how to land rockets as well as scale them up, so the success of Hopper seems likely.

John: The U.S. Space Workforce will continue declining

Depressing, we know, but many, many years of decline in this workforce already has us scratching our heads. Especially since the U.S. space industry seems to be growing. But we don’t see any conditions that have changed, aside from the government shutdown. I believe the shutdown alone will not do the industry any favors, considering just how many projects and launches have been pushed back.

Becki’s response: It’s hard to imagine what it would even take to reverse this trend. If the rise of the commercial launch industry and all the NASA projects announced in the last decade isn’t enough to increase the space workforce, I don’t know what is.

Becki: The Space Force will still be, effectively, nonexistent.

There were six months between a Pentagon report outlining a plan for the Space Force and a presidential memo directing the Pentagon to establish Step 1, the United States Space Command (August 9 to December 18, 2018). The caveat here is that only Congress can create a new branch of the military, and the shutdown over the new year doesn’t inspire faith. Suffice to say once more that funding anything related to space is not the #1 focus of our legislators right now…

The fact that Netflix conceptualized and established a ‘Space Force’ television show about “the men and women who have to figure it out” as a comedy speaks volumes. A CNN poll in August 2018 showed a majority of Americans (55%) oppose the idea of the Space Force itself. A more clearly dictated and timely plan forward would probably help this sentiment.

John’s response: Agree. It will take at least five years for the big three-letter organizations to come to terms that they are losing some of their capability. Even defining the Space Force will likely prove difficult for people who can’t figure out next year’s budget. Because of that, they may just want to kill the Space Force.

John: The U.S. space launch service providers will gain foreign space operations customers, more than all others

Rocket Lab’s launches alone should make for an interesting mix of customers from around the world. If Virgin Orbit finally gets an actual launch test out of the way, that may attract more foreign space operators. Small satellites are relatively inexpensive, and depending on design, can be extremely useful. We’re seeing more nations getting satellites deployed into the Earth’s orbit. These dedicated small satellite launchers may prove extremely attractive to more countries.

Becki’s response: I actually have doubts about this. To attract more foreign space customers, the U.S. needs to overhaul its legal launch proceedings. It was inconceivable to launch anything without government oversight until 2018, when Swarm launched their four SpaceBee payloads from an Indian PSLV-XL after being denied the right to launch from the U.S. government. The optics of the FCC heavily fining a startup for launching according to Indian standards don’t exactly make the greatest pitch for foreign customers to come here. A lack of international customer growth would also support historical trends: although 2018 data is still being tallied, India blew the U.S. out of the park as far as international customers in 2017. While the SpaceX’s 2018 SmallSat Express undoubtedly a dent in India’s market share, I think actively soliciting foreign customers with revised governmental policies is the only way for the U.S. to compete truly.

Becki: SLS will get no closer to launching this year.

In 2010, President Obama authorized the development of the new exploration-class expendable rocket set to leapfrog the Saturn V to be the greatest ever built: the Space Launch System. Given that the original launch date was over a year ago, the project does not seem to be progressing well. In fact, the project has already slipped almost three years behind schedule before a single test flight (original launch planned for December 2017, current launch date unspecified in 2020).

One might say that such delays are merely how the government operates. NASA may not be timely, but it gets results, right? The picture gets bleaker: an audit of the SLS program in October 2018 found that it’s set to run out of funds three years early due to ‘poor performance’ and ‘weak oversight.’ When you throw in the three governmental budgetary lapses in 2018 alone, it becomes clear that financial woes are constricting progress.

John: NASA announces a new Space Launch System launch date

I agree with Becki. It won’t be earlier.

But NASA seems to have difficulty getting this system on the launch pad, taking much longer already than its most successful and visible programs from history. At the same time, this U.S. government shutdown has to wreak havoc with that administration’s schedule.

What about you?

Many of you aren’t forecasters either, but is there something you see for 2019 that you’d like to share with us? We will include your answers in the next newsletter, with no attribution.

Just go to the linked form and give us your prediction, should you wish: