How Might Commercial Market Respond To Military Space Needs?

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch.
Credit: SpaceX

The rise of launch companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab have shown the U.S. government how it can leverage the investment of private companies to reduce its costs and improve its technologies.

As the market has moved beyond launch and into other areas, it remains to see whether the market will similarly embrace the technologies that the military wants to cultivate in the future. 

During an Aug. 19 event marking the launch of U.S. Space Force’s SpaceWerx industrial base outreach effort, Gabe Mounce, deputy director of the SpaceWerx Innovation Office, asked several venture capitalists to evaluate the marketability of four types of technologies: identification, tract analysis and prioritization of orbital objects; advanced maneuvers using artificial intelligence; rendezvous, catch and capture; and end-of-life servicing. 

Of those, on-orbit servicing appeared the most promising. Anton Brevde, a partner at Prime Movers Lab, said that from his perspective, he would consider those four military needs as one area of on-orbit servicing. “For us, in-orbit servicing is a natural next market to develop,” Brevde says.

But some of the other areas that Mounce mentioned may be too soon or too risky for private investors that need to see major returns within 10 years. “Being too early is not the best,” he says.

Pentagon research and development programs are notorious for experiencing a valley of death between the creation of a new technology and the ability of the military to turn that into a viable program that produces an operational system. A similar scenario plays out in the commercial technology world, says Jordan Noone, the founding chief technology officer of Relativity Space, who is now a general partner at Embedded Ventures. Technologies can die without enough investment at a critical time. “There is the ability for companies to build a moat, whether that’s [intellectual property] generation, contractual opportunities, etc., that allows them to grow in a way where they can capture [an] entire market,” Noone says. 

In emerging areas such as space logistics, the challenge is to know which company will win the majority of the market share, because the companies offering those services exhibit “fairly limited differentiation,” he says.

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen manages Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.