Space exploration and orbital operations remain an exciting investment sector because, if history and reputation are any guides at all, space programs are where tomorrow’s market-changing technologies are designed, tested, and proven. Not much has changed that—not even Covid-19.
You may not have noticed, for example, that there were 114 space launches over the past year. That’s nearly a 20-year high. You probably did notice the recent flood of commercial players in space launch and delivery. Sure, SpaceX and Blue Origin gobbled up most of the headlines, but the space market is actually now a viable and addressable market.
However, it’s not a new market. Some investors have been long on private space interests for years. As an example, I backed privately held OneSpace a few years ago. So, it’s not the space aspect that is new, it’s the addressable market potential.
The Need For More Stuff In Space
That space is now a commercially competitive arena is why we’ve seen, for example, the cost of moving materials from Earth to orbit fall at a shocking clip. It used to cost a staggering $54,000 to get one kilogram of something into space aboard the space shuttle. Now, that cost has shrunk under $3,000 per kilo with private carriers, and will probably fall further.
With orbital freight rates falling, it may seem counterintuitive to have growing excitement for investments in the space-adjacent market of 3-D printing.
The idea of 3-D printing in space was always intended, in part, as a workaround to the outlandish and prohibitive cost of getting things to orbit. Why box up and launch heavy machinery, gear, or even fragile components if you can just print them in space and save the cost and trouble?
Falling launch costs would appear to undermine that premise. If launch costs now are comparatively as cheap and accessible as shipping something across the continent, why bother with 3-D printing in space?
Why 3-D Printing Is Still Necessary In Space
There are many reasons to believe 3-D space printing is not only viable but will be increasingly indispensable. The top two reasons are availability and safety.
Though the cost of transferring an object to orbit is coming down, it’s still no easy task. More than ever, launch vehicles and launch windows are still limited. Safety inspections and trials of space-bound materials are substantial and costly, and it’s not worth risking an entire launch cargo over one small piece of anything that isn’t absolutely safe to fly.
Even if you get something in orbit, getting it to exactly where it needs to go is also complicated. There is no DoorDash for space yet.
So, for example, if someone needs a spare part on the International Space Station, it’s still many miles more convenient to have them print parts on-site rather than to send it up from Earth.
Second, many of the parts and pieces required in orbit aren’t entirely safe or easy to launch, at any price. Lasers, heat shields, batteries, microprocessors, even off-the-shelf laptops are sensitive to the vibrations and jostling that happen during launch. Damaging them could limit their use or could even be dangerous. It’s simple really: why risk damaging a lithium-ion battery pack or vital machinery if you don’t have to? Even if the risk is low, when it comes to space, the best decision is always to eliminate it.
All of which is to say that 3-D printing in and for space is more likely to become more common and more necessary even as orbital prices fall and competition increases. The more space flights there are, the more satellites and exploration and research vehicles there are, the more parts and pieces they will need. And in many of those cases, it won’t make logistical or safety sense to launch them.
From an investment view, the good news is that dozens of companies are already deeply invested, both financially and technologically, in 3-D space printing. Here’s an independent list of 50 of them. Some of these companies are going to do quite well as the demand for bypassing or supplementing the launch process grows. While most of the companies listed are still privately held, there is a handful that are already publicly traded, such as Airbus SE (OTC:EADSY), Boeing Co (NYSE:BA), Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC), Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc (NYSE:AJRD), Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE:LMT), Jacobs Engineering Group Inc (NYSE:J), and a company I am a current investor of, KULR Technology Group (OTCQB:KULR).
The even better news is that a few of the companies that get space printing right will have front-row seats to the technology’s growth and commercialization on Earth, which is sure to happen. That’s the investment space play entirely – finding things that work both up in space and down on Earth. In my opinion, 3-D printing will probably do both.
Xia Zuoquan is a founding investor and director of BYD Co Ltd, a maker of electric buses and plug-in electric cars and batteries. Xia founded investment firm Zhengxuan Capital in 2004, with an estimated $1.5 billion in assets.