What leadership changes mean for launch industry

What leadership changes mean for launch industry

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The first four months of 2023 have seen two or, depending on how you view it, possibly three major leadership changes in the European launch industry. André-Hubert Roussel stepped down as ArianeGroup CEO, Chris Larmour vacated the CEO position at Orbex, and ESA's Daniel Neuenschwander was reassigned from Director of Space Transportation to Director of Human and Robotic Exploration. Then there is, of course, the recent launch failure from the UK that put the final nail in the Virgin Orbit coffin, although it’s my opinion that this has very little to do with the state of the UK launch industry despite what pundits would have us believe. Nonetheless, there does appear, at least on a surface level, to be some turmoil in the European launch industry. In an effort to see if there is, in fact, a problem, I endeavoured to examine a few of what I consider key indicators to determine if the industry is in trouble.

In my hunt to measure the health of the European launch industry, I began by looking at the number of vacancies currently open. To accomplish this, I looked at vacancies on both the LinkedIn page and/or website of each company. To ensure the most immediate outlook was considered, I only included vacancies that were posted within the last 30 days.

In total, across 18 companies, there were 425 vacancies in nine countries. Although this does appear to indicate a healthy outlook for the industry, the figures are skewed by ArianeGroup which currently has 279 job postings less than 30 days old. When these vacancies are removed from the equation, the figure is 146 vacancies, which is an average of 8.5 vacancies per company. This figure is, of course, nebulous without understanding the size of each company.

Again, ArianeGroup is an outlier here, as is Avio, which employs around 1,000 people and has done so for several years. With the two European launch industry heavyweights removed from the equation, the industry employs approximately 1,165 people across 16 companies. This figure is probably skewed slightly high due to the inclusion of the entire Dawn Aerospace workforce, a not insignificant number of which is located in New Zealand. Despite this, on average, each European launch startup employs 72 people. This would mean that 8.5 vacancies per company would equate to an average 11.8% increase in the number of people employed by European launch startups, which does not appear to indicate an industry in trouble.

The vacancies are, however, heavily concentrated in France and Germany. With ArianeGroup and Avio vacancies included, France and Germany account for 82% of all vacancies in the launch industry. If you remove the ArianeGroup figures that skew the outlook somewhat, France and Germany still account for 50% of the total vacancies. Interestingly, however, is that once ArianeGroup is removed from the equation, France drops from having the most vacancies down to third behind Germany with 46, which is largely driven by Isar’s recent hiring blitz with 26 open vacancies, and Spain with 31, which is driven by PLD Space with one vacancy from B2Space. Two interesting inclusions in the country debate are the Netherlands and Denmark, which aren’t generally seen as drivers in the European launch industry. Vacancies in the Netherlands are from Dawn Aerospace while employment opportunities in Denmark are being offered by the UK-based Orbex.

It should be noted that the above is only vacancies with commercial companies. There are also a significant number of vacancies in the industry with governmental agencies like ESA, CNES, ASI, DLR, and, of course, the new Spanish Space Agency.

There is definitely an instinct to highlight the €155 million Series C funding round from Isar that the company closed in March and conclude that funding potential for European launch startups has never been better. However, that would be misleading.

A generally accepted baseline for funding a launch startup is that a company requires approximately €100 million to get from founding to a maiden launch. How, Isar is proof that the assumed amount is probably a little on the low side, depending on the size of the vehicle.

For the 1,000 kg to low Earth orbit Spectrum launch vehicle, Isar is going to have spent around €300 million to get to a maiden flight and, according to the company, a little beyond. However, there is also more to this equation. Isar is particularly focused on industrializing and automating the manufacturing of Spectrum to allow for a ramp-up of production. As a result, the large initial investment will hopefully allow the company to have an as significantly smoother transition to operational flight and profitability following the vehicle’s debut.

Orbex is the only other European launch startup to have surpassed the €100 million in funding milestone. To date, the company has raised a total of around €114 million which it has stated is sufficient to complete the development of its 180-kilogram to low Earth orbit Prime launch vehicle. The funding is also being used in the development of Sutherland Spaceport, the development, and construction of which Orbex took over in 2022.

MaiaSpace arguably has also made significant progress in its funding efforts. Earlier this year the company received an additional €6 million from its parent company, ArianeGroup bringing its total funding to date to over €10 million. However, this figure does obscure much of the funding that has gone towards developing tech that the company will utalise aboard Maia. The company is leaning heavily on the work done by ArianeGroup on the ESA-contracted Themis booster demonstrator. This includes making use of the Prometheus engine, three of which will power the rocket’s first stage. Investment in the development of Prometheus and Themis has been well over €100 million. However, MaiaSpace is aiming to develop a fully reusable launch vehicle and launch vehicle architecture that will be applied to a larger range of vehicles that ArianeGroup hopes will replace Ariane 6 in the 2030s. As a result, the development of Maia will likely require significantly more funding than has currently been secured. The company is in the process of putting together a funding round. It had stated that this initial round would be completed in late 2022 or early 2023 but there has of yet been no indication that an announcement is forthcoming. Despite this, the company has continued to grow rapidly with as many as twenty of the 43 employees of MaiaSpace having been added to the team since the beginning of 2023.

Only two other companies have secured any significant funding since the beginning of 2022 with Latitude closing a €10 million Series A and PLD Space securing an unconfirmed amount with a combination of private funding and crowdfunding.

This all indicates what we have already generally accepted. There won’t be enough funding for everyone, but those with the expertise to find it and sufficient developmental progress to seal the deal will be able to secure the funding that they need. This is not a new phenomenon and thus doesn’t represent a shift in fortunes for the industry.

A lot has been made about the downfall of Virgin Orbit and what it means for the UK and its budding launch industry. Let me be clear with my opinion, it is the best thing that could have happened for the country.

Virgin Orbit did, in fact, bring very little to the UK. No components for its rockets were manufactured in the UK and because of the nature of launch infrastructure, the company’s only contribution to the country was an integration building that was subsidised by UK taxpayers. Additionally, according to public filings and vacancies that were posted prior to the failed launch, Virgin Orbit employed close to zero people in the UK.

Now, all this would have been almost tolerable if Virgin Orbit had planned to perform a significant amount of its operations from the UK. This was, however, not the case. According to the Virgin Orbit launch license application, the company had committed to no more than two flights per year from Spaceport Cornwall up until 2030. That’s a total of 16 flights over eight years. For context, SpaceX had managed that many launches within the first five months of 2022.

Despite bringing very little, if anything, to the table, Virgin Orbit was given a hero's welcome by UK government officials and the country’s media. Dignitaries from the UK government, including former prime minister Boris Johnson, visited Cornwall to espouse the virtues of Virgin Orbit, with Johnson even donning a Virgin Orbit flight jacket with “Prime Minister” embroidered on the left breast. All of this was at the expense of homegrown startups like Orbex and SmallSpark that got little to no attention or public funding.

Virgin Orbit’s presence in the UK was a marketing exercise both for the company and for the country. It brought nothing to Europe in terms of launch capacity or employment opportunities. If the company’s demise means that funds and attention that would have been given to it are diverted to companies that are actually contributing to the UK, then it appears to have been in the country’s best interests.

It’s no secret that the US launch market is heavily subsidized by the deep pockets of NASA and the Department of Defense. Europe will likely never be able to match those commitments or the level of risk-taking that budgets of that size enable. However, the continent can do a lot more to incentivize the growth of the European launch industry outside of ESA-driven programs like Ariane and Vega. The best way to do this is to commit payloads to launch startups. These commitments will in turn reduce the risk that private investors will need to commit to in order to invest in these startups. Thankfully, there are already indications that ESA and the European Union are moving in that direction.

An ESA vacancy that was posted on 12 April for a Boost! Launch Service Manager appears to indicate that the agency is preparing to begin offering opportunities for startups to secure launch contracts. The posting also revealed that the payloads that will be offered for these flights are part of a joint effort between ESA and the European Commission called the European Flight Ticket Initiative. This initiative will offer flight opportunities for the European Commission's In-Orbit Demonstration and Validation (IOD/IOV) missions, which it hopes will foster the use of space data for scientific, public, or commercial purposes through innovative technologies and operational concepts.

This is a very small crack in the door to securing ESA and EU missions, but it is still more than these companies had before. I think it’s an incredible opportunity and if these startups can deliver successfully on these missions, it will most certainly give ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher an incentive to further open the door to competitive bidding for the launch of ESA missions.

High-profile changes in leadership are never a positive sign for a company. In the case of ArianeGroup and ESA, these changes are likely due to the continued delay of Ariane 6, although it should be noted that this is not the official position of either organisation. Orbex, however, is a strange one.

In a statement on his LinkedIn profile, now-former Orbex CEO Chris Larmour stated that he had taken the company as far as he could personally and that it was now time to “step away and let others lead the company to the next level.” However, the fact that the company doesn’t yet have a new CEO ready to fill the position, with chief development officer Kristian Von Bengtson filling the role temporarily, it does appear that the change was more abrupt than Orbex or Larmour would have us believe. I do, however, think that at worst the change in leadership is down to a dispute in the direction that Orbex should pursue rather than an indication that there is a fundamental issue with the company or the technology.

Although my outlook on the industry does appear positive, we cannot avoid that it is currently in a state of crisis. With the successful launch of JUICE, one of the only two operational European launch vehicles has just one more flight left on its manifest before it is retired. Once it is, Europe’s entire launch capacity will rest on Vega, which itself only has two operational flights left before it is supposed to be succeeded by the grounded Vega C vehicle. Europe needs launch capacity, and it needs it soon as possible. 2023 will, however, not be the year we get it. 2024 will hopefully be the start of a steady increase in capacity with the introduction of Ariane 6 and the reintroduction of Vega C (which should hopefully still happen in late 2023). On the launch startup side, we should see the introduction of two to three vehicles with Orbex, Isar, and RFA appearing to be on a positive trajectory to the debut of their respective vehicles. All three do have ambitions of a late 2023 maiden flight, but I think that’s unlikely. I think if at least two of those vehicles are introduced sometime in 2024 it will represent a positive shift in fortunes for Europe.

Bittersweet symphony - ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) mission was successfully launched aboard an Ariane 5 from the Guiana Space Centre. The launch was the penultimate flight of Ariane 5. An eight-year cruise with four gravity-assist flybys at Earth and Venus will slingshot the spacecraft toward the outer Solar System and into orbit around Jupiter to begin its mission. You can find more about the spacecraft and its mission here.

Denmark U-turns on rocket launch ban - Denmark’s Minister of Education and Research Christina Egelund has withdrawn a proposed amendment to the country’s Activities in Outer Space law that would have imposed a three-year ban on rocket launches. The amendment was submitted by Minster Egelund on 29 March 2023 and sought to temporarily restrict the launch of rockets from Danish territory to give the country time to adopt necessary regulations. According to a statement given to European Spaceflight, the minister chose to withdraw the amendment after the view of relevant stakeholders gave her reason to reconsider the matter.

What a way to spend a billion euros - ESA announced that it had, on behalf of the Italian Space Agency, awarded all contracts for Italy’s IRIDE constellation. IRIDE will be composed of Earth observation satellites of different types and sizes combining SAR, optical, panchromatic, hyperspectral, and infrared sensors. Italy will begin launching the constellation between 2025 and 2026. The budget for the constellation is €1.1 billion which will be spent over the next four and a half years.

Slovenia wants to be a part of the club - Slovenia presented its Space Strategy 2030. The draft strategy covers the period from 2023 to 2030. It aims to direct and support a rapidly growing space industry. The strategy also looks to commit the country to become a full member of ESA. Slovenia became an associated member of ESA in July 2016, which allowed it to participate in ESA optional programmes. In October 2020, the country set a target of becoming a full member of the agency by 2024. Public consultation on the draft strategy closes on 10 May.

A European party in orbit - The seventh SpaceX transporter mission was launched carrying a number of European payloads including Norway’s NorSat-TF, an UnseenLabs BRO satellite, France's INSPIRE-Sat 7 satellites, Platform 3 from EnduroSat in Bulgaria, REVELA from ARCA Dynamics in Italy, and VIREO from CS3 in Hungry. The Falcon 9 also deployed the tenth D-Orbit ION OTV mission into orbit which carried five satellites, the identity of one of which remains undisclosed, and two hosted payloads.

Search for the darkest universe - ESA’s Euclid space telescope has set sail for Cape Canaveral in Florida. The telescope was transported from Thales Alenia Space's Cannes facility to the port of Savona in Italy. It then set sail across the Atlantic. Euclid is expected to be launched on a mission to explore the composition and evolution of the dark universe aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 in July.

All the better to observe Earth - Finish satellite manufacturer ReOrbit signed an agreement with Argentine space tech company VENG to develop next-generation Earth Observation satellites. ReOrbit will provide the satellite bus, and both companies will work together to develop the payload subsystem with a plan to manufacture, integrate, and test at VENG-operated facilities located in Córdoba, Argentina.

We like our planet wet - As part of the space component of the France 2030 initiative, CNES has opened a call for tenders for the use of space data for water monitoring and management as well as a call for expressions of interest to collect the needs of public actors in space data and associated services. A total of €1.5 billion has been devoted by the country to innovation in the space sector as part of the France 2030 initiative.

Pre-orders galore - UK-based space and climate tech company Satellite Vu announced that it had secured £81 million worth of purchase options from thirty companies for its Early Access Programme. Satellite Vu is due to launch its first spacecraft in June 2023. Ahead of this milestone, the company opened its Early Access Programme to provide customers and partners with preferred access to its imagery products in addition to opportunities to secure valuable capacity on its inaugural satellite.

As someone who has been in hiring processes for multiple of those companies, I can tell you that at least RFA's and PLD's vacancies are virtual, in the sense that for the most part they aren't actually hiring for those positions, but rather collecting leads for when they need to fill them. If you remove those, you get a more realistic picture, since those alone contribute almost half of the newspace vacancies in Europe.

In my view, Virgin Orbit's primary problem was that their platform is not scalable. It's simply not practical to build a larger carrier vehicle and because the rocket launches on its side, it needs to have extremely rigid walls. At best, Virgin was always going to be a niche player.

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