Determining Success for Smallsat Launchers
With so many small launch startups racing towards success on a global scale, the stakes have never been higher to cut through the noise and evaluate all initiatives for probability of success before committing to a launch partner. Well-informed decisions will be critical to all industry players involved (investors, smallsat operators, brokers, and partners) as they will have far-reaching consequences. So, what factors need to be considered and analyzed to help tip the scales when making these decisions?
NSR’s Smallsat Launch Vehicle Markets, 2nd Edition report provides a comprehensive analysis and comparative assessment of the leading and emerging smallsat launchers by using critical metrics such as technology readiness, price, unique launcher capabilities, and market advantages and risks.
Venturing beyond obvious assessment criteria such as price and mission-specific requirements can get muddy, as the smallsat industry continues to expand every day. The costs of launch for any given satellite mission have traditionally dwarfed all other business spending, and this trend continues today despite the seemingly greater availability of options. This underlines the significance of examining the whole business for long term viability, despite the instinct in picking the cheapest option that might not ever make it to orbit. So far, of the 130+ new small launch vehicles that are in development today, only Rocket Lab and a couple of Chinese rockets have successfully made it to orbit. If there is one thing that is certain, it is that most of these small launch startups will not survive.
In evaluating any initiative in a highly competitive field, a unified strategy in playing to unique strengths of the technology and matching it to a specific business opportunity is highly important. In an ideal situation, all business choices and partnerships should be strategically aligned to boost those unique strengths if the initiative is to succeed. Government contracts and research grants such as SBIR awards can help boost credibility, as well as gather industry momentum and support. Furthermore, signed (contracted) customers or partners of all types are another strong indicator to examine and gauge. A word of caution, however – Letters of Interest (LOIs) and other non-binding agreements indicate early stage conversations and should not be mistaken for real customer commitment.
Other concrete factors to examine are workforce and leadership team, funding, regulatory approvals, and facilities as these are all significant indicators of how trustworthy the company is and how far along it is in the development of its launcher technology. Development timelines for launch initiatives vary, however drawing data from a successful actor such as Rocket Lab can be a helpful “reality check” – it took Rocket Lab ~$300M and 12+ years to get to orbit.
Gauging the probability of success of dedicated smallsat launch startups is not an exact science by any means – all factors discussed aim to assign some bearing for comparison in a highly uncertain and risky environment. Despite all being positive, each of these factors are not significant as standalone events. However, if brought together by a unified strategy and given a chance to build momentum, these factors signal powerful potential of long-term success.