Monday, July 25, 2016

Space Angels Venture Capitalists Bullish on the Space Suit Market

          By Brian Orlotti

The Space Angels Network (SAN), a venture capital group which funds various space companies, has released a report predicting increased demand for spacesuits over the coming decades.

What the trendy hipster space explorer might be wearing in twenty years. As outlined in the December 23rd. 2015 Universe Today post, "Why Can't We Design the Perfect Spacesuit?," this particular model, called the MIT BioSuit, is a "a skintight spacesuit that offers improved mobility and reduced mass compared to modern gas-pressurized spacesuits." Photo c/o MIT.

As outlined in the July 19th, 2016 SAN post, "Under Pressure: Past, Present, and Future Spacesuit Market," a total of 50 spacesuits were sold globally in 2015, with a total value of roughly $100Mln USD ($132Mln CDN). Spacesuits, currently a high margin, low volume business, are poised for a renaissance as government space activity declines and the private sector takes a leading role.

This new generation of spacesuits will need to have new capabilities as well as be more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing than products currently available.

Among the report's findings:
  • There are resounding similarities between the current spacesuit industry and the legacy launch and satellite industries, i.e. expertise in proven technologies, a reputation for safety, and strong government relationships. These incumbents solely serve national space agencies and operate on long design cycles and product lifetimes (exacerbated by 'cost plus' contracts).
  • The profound economic shift in the space sector over the past decade has seen the entry of new players and a strong focus on cost. Greater space accessibility will enable more manned spaceflight activity, which will in turn spur demand for space and pressure suits.

Elon Musk is looking for new spacesuits, at least according to the May 9th, 2016 Nature World News article, "Elon Musk Hires Superhero Costume Designer to Create "Badass" Spacesuits for SpaceX Mars Mission."  This particular model, as outlined in the Sagan Sense Tumblr page on the Future Deep Space Suit, represents one of a series of possible design directions, which could be optimized for different roles in different environments. Graphic c/o Sagan*Sense.

  • While most commercial launch will be centered around destinations in near-space and low Earth orbit, governments, and a select few commercial companies, will explore planetary bodies and conduct maintenance, requiring highly utilitarian spacesuits. 
  • Commercial space companies will want to differentiate between themselves by positioning their products based on aesthetics, capabilities or comfort.
  • Diversified customers and increased competition between spacesuit manufacturers will shorten design cycles and product lifetimes. Innovation will be further spurred by recent advancements in materials science and computer simulations.
  • Successful companies will need to overcome a traditional low tolerance for risk, which has historically inhibited innovation. 
The SAN report outlines multiple developmental paths for the spacesuit industry. Well-capitalized incumbents that identify successful new technologies may strategically acquire them to mitigate development risk. In this scenario, the production of spacesuits remains as consolidated as it is today, with the balance of power shifting to the manufacturers.

Our parents spacesuit. The 21 layer space suit used during the Apollo program. Graphic c/o pics about space.

Another scenario is that launch providers (i.e. SpaceX and Blue Origin) deem spacesuits to be of high operational risk, and so pursue vertical integration. In this scenario, the remaining spacesuit makers that lack innovative designs will not generate sustainable cash flow.

A third possible outcome is to have one company with superior technology attaining total dominance over the marketplace, the spacesuit market being relatively small.

Brian Orlotti.
The SAN report offers thoughtful views on the future of the spacesuit industry. Space aficionados will eagerly observe the evolution of these spaceflight staples through the 21st century.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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