Investing in Space: Don’t panic

FAN Editor

The company’s modified 747 jet “Cosmic Girl” in Mojave, California.

Virgin Orbit

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Overview: Don’t panic

The past week has felt a little crisis-heavy.

Yesterday Virgin Orbit confirmed what its 700 or so employees had long feared, given its precarious financial position: A halt to operations, with an unpaid furlough for most of the company. Virgin Orbit has been looking for a financial lifeline and exploring options for several months, with a series of loans from Richard Branson keeping the cash burn at bay in the meantime. But it hasn’t found an investor or buyer, and the reality of its situation has caught up.

While employees await an update, and understandably fear layoffs, it’s worth noting that in the past 24 hours I’ve heard from a variety of executives at other companies who are hiring. Virgin Orbit’s headquarters and factory are near multiple rocket and space companies, with several growing fast nearby in “Space Beach” (an industry nickname for Long Beach, California). 

The fight for talent remains very competitive, which should give Virgin Orbit folks reassurance in the face of an uncertain future.

Then there’s Silicon Valley Bank

While a number of venture capitalists I spoke to in the past week noted that space companies in their portfolios banked with SVB, the level of exposure I’ve found on a company-by-company basis was much lower than I originally feared in the hours after the bank’s failure. Take the disclosures of Rocket Lab and Astra as an example: the pair of rocket companies reported SVB cash exposure of about 8% and 15% of their funds, respectively.

Granted, the SVB situation is putting other banks under pressure and could spur caution around startup fundraising. But the implications are playing out more broadly in the global banking system, rather than a sector-specific venture capital risk, helping to dilute some of the near-term threat to space firms. 

And don’t forget, multiple space companies, large and small, are backed by a lone wealthy individual with huge equity ownership. In the case of cascading bank failures like those we’ve seen in recent days, that could offer some security. 

What’s up

  • Amazon shows off trio of antennas for its Project Kuiper satellite internet: As the tech giant prepares to take on SpaceX’s Starlink, it revealed the designs of its antennas, including an “ultra-compact” model that weighs about 1 pound. Amazon SVP Dave Limp also gave a variety of updates on the company’s progress, as it prepares to launch a pair of prototype satellites in May. – CNBC
  • SpaceX plans to test satellite-to-cell service with T-Mobile this year, as the company begins launching its second generation Starlink satellites. The company is currently manufacturing the satellites at a rate of six per day. – CNBC
  • FTC continues to probe L3Harris‘ planned acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne: In a filing, Aerojet Rocketdyne disclosed that the companies received a request from the Federal Trade Commission “for additional information and documentary material,” extending a waiting period for the deal to close by 30 days. – Aerojet Rocketdyne
  • Relativity postpones debut launch attempt after coming within moments of getting Terran 1 off the ground: The company’s system triggered an abort with just 0.5 seconds remaining before liftoff, which shut down the rocket’s engines after briefly firing up. Relativity expects to go for another launch attempt shortly. – CNBC
  • OneWeb has “moved on” from the satellites that remain at Russia’s launch site, with CEO Neil Masterson saying he spends “no time thinking about” the 36 satellites stranded in Kazakhstan and knows that he is “not getting them back any time soon.” The satellites are worth a combined $50 million, Masterson noted. – Reuters
  • Axiom gives spacesuit teaser in an event with NASA: The company showed off a prototype of its lunar spacesuit, although the unexpected dark color of the suit was a cover designed to conceal the details of Axiom’s design. – CNBC
  • Amazon doesn’t see a need to buy a rocket company: Amid reports that United Launch Alliance is up for sale, Amazon SVP Dave Limp said there is “a lot of launch out there,” with the rocket market “well-served” at the moment with new vehicles coming. – CNBC
  • SpaceX returns Crew-5 astronauts to Earth for NASA, as the company completed its fifth operational crew flight for the agency. – SpaceX / Photos
  • White House seeks inflation-level increase in NASA’s budget: The Biden administration’s budget request for NASA represents a 7% increase from the previous year, with increases to the Artemis lunar program and funds for a Mars mission. – CNBC
  • Blue Origin continues to investigate New Shepard failure, with the goal of returning the suborbital rocket to flight by the end of the year. While a company executive declined to share details from the investigation, citing coordination with the FAA, the federal regulator emphasized that it does not prohibit companies from discussing ongoing investigations. – Reuters / Read more
  • OneWeb nears completion of first-generation constellation, with SpaceX delivering 40 satellites to orbit for the company, and India’s ISRO preparing to launch the last  batch of 36 satellites. – Read more / OneWeb
  • SpaceX cargo flight arrives at the ISS: The company’s Dragon capsule docked with the space station as part of the CRS-27 mission for NASA, carrying over 6,200 pounds of experiments and supplies. – NASA
  • ULA conducts Vulcan rocket testing in Florida as the company prepares for the rocket’s debut launch. The company said it completed a “first stage tanking demonstration” at the launchpad. – ULA
  • SpaceX is “close” to attempting its Starship orbital launch, with VP Tom Ochinero saying the company is waiting on its FAA license before announcing a target launch date. Ochinero noted that SpaceX expects to receive the license “very shortly.” – Read more

Industry maneuvers

  • NASA awards Firefly with $112 million contract for lunar mission, under the CLPS program: In what will be Firefly’s second cargo mission to the moon, the company said it will feature the debut of a two-stage version of its Blue Ghost spacecraft, to deliver both payloads to the surface and a satellite to lunar orbit. – Read more
  • Air Force awards Varda with $60 million contract to use the company’s re-entry capsule as a hypersonic test-bed. – Varda
  • Voyager Space acquired aerospace engineering and manufacturing company ZIN Technologies, for an undisclosed amount, to further its Starlab space station development effort. – Voyager
  • Mexico’s Apco Networks orders two satellites from Astranis: The company plans to operate the pair of satellites for Apco, with a launch expected next year. – SpaceNews
  • K2 Space emerges from stealth with plan to build massive satellite buses, as co-founding brothers Karan and Neel Kunjur go against the trend of building spacecraft smaller and leverage the promised capabilities of new rockets like SpaceX’s Starship. – CNBC
  • Lynk Global selects New Zealand-based Dawn Aerospace to provide propulsion systems, which it says will “enhance deployment, life extension, collision avoidance, and de-orbit capabilities.” – Dawn
  • European Space Agency buys Vega C rocket launches from Arianespace on behalf of the Italian government: The launch company announced ESA bought two Vega C rockets, with an option for a third, for Earth imagery satellite missions scheduled to begin in late 2025. – Arianespace
  • Malaysian satellite operator selects the ground system of EchoStar’s Hughes to enable broadband services through the MEASAT-3d high-throughput satellite. The company said the new satellite will deliver services with speeds up to 100 Mbps, and can serve more than 2 million people across Malaysia within the next three years – MEASAT
  • OneWeb signs agreement with AWS for cloud services: The global satellite internet company announced a “letter of intent” with the Amazon division, in which it will “explore providing cloud-based connectivity and the delivery of innovative services to customers worldwide.” – OneWeb
  • Tim Keating hired by Sierra Space to lead government relations: Keating was formerly Boeing’s top lobbyist, and joins Sierra Space as its Chief Strategy Officer and Senior Vice President of Global Government Operations. – Reuters
  • Frank DiBello retires from Space Florida, leaving his post as president and CEO of the state’s aerospace development authority after 14 years. – Space Florida

Market movers

  • Virgin Orbit stock falls more than 30% following pause of operations and nearly company-wide furlough.
  • Bank of America reiterates sell-equivalent rating on Virgin Galactic after fourth-quarter results, lowering its price target to $3, about 35% below the stocks current level. The firm emphasized its lower price target is due to “lower projected flight volumes” of VSS Unity, and the “vulnerable” strategy of leaving its VSS Imagine spacecraft idle.
  • Astra hires firm to investigate “potential illegal short selling” in the company’s stock, as it faces a Nasdaq delisting deadline of April 4. Astra also plans to report fourth-quarter results in about two weeks. – CNBC

On the horizon

  • Mar. 16: Rocket Lab’s Electron launching Capella satellites from Virginia.
  • Mar. 17: Relativity to make third attempt at Terran 1 debut launch from Florida.
  • Mar. 17: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launching Starlink mission from California.
  • Mar. 17: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launching SES satellites from Florida.

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