Amid The Financial Wreckage Of A&D, Space Rises Above

Demo-2 mission astronauts
Credit: NASA

As public companies reported their latest quarterly results amid the recent financial carnage in the aerospace and defense sector, it was hard to find genuine optimism. With COVID-19 gutting the commercial aerospace manufacturing sector and maintenance, repair and overhaul segment, and expectations hardening around flat or worse defense spending, most corporate managers provided slimmed-down outlooks for the foreseeable future.

But one segment stood out for its near-universal positivity: space. It may have almost taken an implosion of the airliner business and historic federal deficit spending against a pandemic to get there, but suddenly outer space looks like the best place to be in business.

“Space continues to be an opportunity for companies to drive growth in a flat-to-down environment,” Jefferies analysts wrote in an Aug. 10 report.

As the recent earnings season showed, numerous companies are being lifted by space business. “The primes are having such strong growth there,” Credit Suisse analyst Rob Spingarn noted in a July 31 teleconference.

For instance, L3Harris Technologies sees space—both space-based and ground support—as its fastest-growing opportunity, with a combined $10 billion pipeline of long-term opportunities and several bid proposals awaiting responses that total around $1 billion in the near term. “We feel very encouraged by the space business as a whole,” said L3Harris Chairman and CEO Bill Brown.

Several others below the marquee prime government contractor level are also benefiting, according to Jefferies analysts Sheila Kahyaoglu and Greg Konrad. “Kratos Defense and Security is benefiting from the need for low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellites in real-time data processing, and Mercury Systems is getting pulled in, given an increased need for data processing power at the edge.” What is more, both Booz Allen Hamilton and Parsons indicate that space is even a target area for mergers and acquisitions.

President Donald Trump’s administration’s spending and focus on space, from the new U.S. Space Force to a NASA mission to return Americans to the Moon in the coming years, certainly helps set the tone. Significantly, there is a commercial sector race to establish LEO-based communication and Earth observation services—albeit one driven by billionaires and their personal passions for a space legacy.

A more subtle shift, though no less significant, is occurring down the value chain, where there is an emerging middle market for space services. Companies such as Parsons, Virgin Galactic and KBR have reengineered their companies and are making money by providing support services for the space effort—in ways that are not as sexy as SpaceX’s NASA crew transport mission but just as real when it comes to making a profit.

“We had nice year-on-year growth in the space business, just under double-digit growth there,” KBR CEO and President Stuart Bradie said Aug. 6. The former Halliburton business, once publicly associated with military logistics support during the George W. Bush administration, now is the world’s only government-licensed provider training astronauts for commercial space missions.

“Investors often overlook that KBR has transformed its portfolio since 2015 and still perceive the firm as an engineering and construction play, given its heritage as a unit of Halliburton,” Cowen analyst Gautum Khanna noted in June. But acquisitions of Wyle Labs, Honeywell Technology Solutions and Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies in 2016-18 “put KBR on the map as a noteworthy government services competitor.” Government services, especially space, now are responsible for 70% of the company’s annual revenue.

Interestingly, the space market is expanding so fast that KBR itself may have competition for astronaut training. In June, NASA signed a Space Act Agreement with Virgin Galactic to develop a private orbital astronaut readiness program for space tourists.

“As part of this, we will offer our existing space training infrastructure at Spaceport America and customized future Astronaut Readiness Program . . . allowing these private astronauts to become familiar with the environment in and en route to space such as G forces and zero G,” Virgin Chief Space Officer George Whitesides said Aug. 3. “This initiative has been largely driven by the considerable demand among our existing customer base to participate in orbital space flights.”

There have also been plenty of space company setbacks in recent months, with OneWeb’s bankruptcy heading the list. But it should come as no surprise that business success in space is hard. Maybe what is surprising is that space is already proving lucrative for public investors, and the market looks set to grow.

Michael Bruno

Based in Washington, Michael Bruno is Aviation Week Network’s Executive Editor for Business. He oversees coverage of aviation, aerospace and defense businesses, supply chains and related issues.