Space Exploration

Space Exploration

Industry Outlook

Space exploration is an expensive endeavor for the U.S. government. In recent years, NASA's budget has been cut more frequently than it has been maintained or increased. The agency underwent a restructuring and streamlining program that included a goal of reducing its civil-servant staff. In 2004 the trend reversed when President George W. Bush called for a new initiative to further space travel and exploration, and as a result NASA projected a $1 billion budget increase over the span of five years. This was expected to positively affect the NASA workforce. This changed in 2011 with the discontinuation of the shuttle program. However, a proposed budget increase by the U.S. government for NASA for 2021 is a positive sign for U.S. space exploration.

NASA continues building and using unmanned spacecraft for explorations. Up until 2017, NASA was developing the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), to identify, capture, and redirect a near-Earth asteroid that astronauts will study in the 2020s. As described on NASA's Web site, "many of the central technologies in development for that mission, such as solar electric propulsion, will continue." NASA plans to launch the ARM robotic spacecraft by the end of the 2020s. Another current project is the development and design of the Orion spacecraft, for future journey to Mars. Going forward with manned space exploration projects, NASA is developing technologies that will enable humans to live away from Earth for extended periods of time. These technologies include advanced space suits, space exploration vehicles with pressurized cabins for use on distant planets, advanced communications systems, and more. It is hoped these advancements will enable manned missions to an asteroid and possibly to Mars.

Private companies and other governments are also stepping in to fill the void left by cancellation of the U.S. shuttle program. U.S. astronauts are transported in record time to the International Space Station aboard the Russian space capsule, Soyuz. Virgin Galactic is building spacecraft for use in suborbital space flights for science missions as well as for an evolving industry, space tourism. Cargo, including materials and supplies are now transported to the International Space Station aboard unmanned spacecrafts built by companies such as Virginia-based Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (formerly Orbital ATK), and California-based SpaceX.

Space exploration technology is just one sector of the aerospace industry, which covers the larger industry of commercial aircraft production. Many people work for the private aerospace companies that develop and manufacture space equipment. The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) reported that the commercial aerospace and defense industry contributed $374 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product in 2018, which represented nearly 2 percent of the GDP. The aerospace and defense industry experienced 4.17 percent growth in sales revenue from 2017 through 2018. As the AIA describes it, the aerospace and defense industry is "one of the largest contributors of employment, earnings, and wages to the nation's economic baseline, and represents one of the last pillars of U.S. manufacturing strength."

According to SelectUSA, a division of the federal government, the U.S aerospace industry employed about 509,000 technical and scientific workers in 2018, with another estimated 700,000 workers employed in related fields. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts little or no change in aerospace jobs through 2024. Some professions, such as aerospace engineers, are projected to have slow growth (about 2 percent) in employment in the coming years. The aerospace industry is directly linked to the economy, and subject to budget cuts during recessions and in certain administrations. It also directly tied to the manufacturing industry, which is expected to have slow growth or decline in revenue in the coming years. Opportunities should be best in research and development. Jobs will also open up steadily as people retire or leave the industry, but competition for employment will be stiff.

The coronavirus pandemic, which started in late 2019, caused an economic slowdown, which has impacted many industries, including the space exploration sector. The large, major space companies weathered the storm but small startups faced challenges with securing funding. Some companies had to cut their budgets and reduce staff. Despite the many challenges, more than 1,200 satellites were launched in 2020, which was more than had been launched in any other year past, according to an article in The Verge. As described in the article, "while many of these satellites were either small in size, or bulk satellites from SpaceX, the numbers are indicative of just how much the space economy has grown in the previous years—and how resilient spaceflight has become even when faced with a pandemic."

Some areas of the space exploration industry saw a rise in demand in 2020. For example, industries and governments sought data from companies that provide geospatial intelligence and high-resolution images of Earth. In addition, the U.S. classified many aerospace companies as "essential," due to their contracts with the Department of Defense or with NASA. The accelerated rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 will bolster the economy and contribute to growth in the space exploration industry. A report by Fortune Business Insights predicts that the global space launch services market will reach $26.16 billion by the end of 2027, growing at a compound annual growth rate of more than 13 percent from 2020 through 2027.

Going forward, more space companies are expected to rely on government contracts for funding. Terrorism also continues to have a major impact on the aerospace industry, particularly on commercial air travel and airlines, which experienced a drop in business. Areas of the industry serving the military have grown in response to the terrorist threat, and this has most likely included some spending for space activities such as surveillance satellites. A report from AIA indicated a steady increase in spending by NASA and related agencies in recent years.

Aerospace engineers will be needed to replace engineers as they retire from the field. Aerospace companies will also be looking for qualified technicians in fields such as laser optics, mission operations, spacecraft integrations, hazardous materials procedures, production planning, materials testing, computer-aided design, and robotic operations and programming. Aircraft are now being redesigned with the focus on noise reduction and fuel efficiency; engineers will be needed for design help in this area.