It was a banner year for the commercial space industry. Even in the midst of a pandemic and while piling up big economic losses, companies continued to expand into the final frontier. One big milestone: In late May, Elon Muskâ€™s SpaceX ferried two astronauts to the International Space Station, the first time human beings had been sent to orbit on a privately owned spacecraft. Investors have continued to back companies in the space industry, and new technologies were unveiled in 2020 that promise more success in the years to come.
For these reasons, we have chosen to focus the inaugural Forbes Science Awards exclusively on the commercial space sector. Here are the best and the brightest from the year.
Best Product: Leolabsâ€™ Collision Avoidance
Space is getting increasingly crowded, and with a number of companies putting constellations of hundreds of satellites into low Earth orbit in the coming years, ensuring that they donâ€™t collide with each other â€“ or an old bit of space junk â€” is increasingly important. Thatâ€™s where Menlo Park, Calif.-based LeoLabâ€™s automated collision avoidance system comes into play. The company has multiple radar systems monitoring low Earth orbit, serving as space â€œtraffic copsâ€ for their customers, which include both private companies and government agencies.
Most Intriguing Newcomer: Zed FellowshipÂ
The Zed Fellowship aims to make the commercial space business more inclusive by pairing talented students from underrepresented communities with mentors and paid internships. Participating companies include San Francisco-based Earth observation firm Planet and Kayhan, a Boulder, Colo-based company that helps satellite operators avoid collisions. â€œItâ€™s not a company itself, but it will make an impact across the industry,â€ says Forbes Awards judge Hannah Kerner, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland.
Most Disruptive Innovator: Elon Musk
The first launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was in June of 2010 and it failed. Nearly 10 years to the day later, a Falcon 9 rocket sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station, the first launch of astronauts to orbit from U.S. soil since 2011. The company did it again in November, sending four astronauts to the space station. In the meantime, Muskâ€™s company has continued to improve the reusability of its rockets – a launch in December was seventh for one of its veteran Falcon 9 boosters, the same week the company made another test of the prototype rocket Musk intends to send to Mars.
Outstanding Firm: Rocket Lab
Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab, which builds rockets to service the small satellite market, had multiple successful launches in 2020. It also launched and recovered its first rocket, a major step in reusability. If that werenâ€™t enough, the company also launched its own satellite in 2020. Eventually it hopes to sell that expertise to customers who lack the ability to build their own satellites.
Annus Horribilis: The Night Sky
When SpaceX began launching dozens of satellites for its planned internet service, astronomers discovered to their consternation that they were so bright they were interfering with scientific observations. Problems with light pollution continue, even as both SpaceX and Amazon (which is planning its own constellation of over 3,200 satellites for internet service), have been working with astronomical organizations to figure out how to minimize the impact. But a number of companies are planning major satellite launches over the next few years, and the consequences for scientific observation â€“ including tracking objects like asteroids that may crash into Earth â€” remain unclear.
Forbes Forecast: To The Moon â€” And The Stock Market
If all goes as planned, the summer of 2021 will see the worldâ€™s first private spacecraft landing on the Moon. Built by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic and holding 14 NASA payloads, this landing is planned to be the first of many as NASA ramps up plans to return to the Moon. And capital is following shortly behind. â€œWe expect to see some space companies to hit the public markets in 2021,â€ says Forbes Awards judge Chad Anderson, general partner at Space Capital, a New York City-based venture firm specializing in the space industry.
And drumroll, please â€¦
The Forbes Person Of The Year In Science: Jim Bridenstine
Under Bridenstineâ€™s watch as NASA Administrator, the space agency returned astronauts to orbit and accelerated its plans to get back to the Moon, this time to stay. But perhaps more remarkable is the fact that in our age of polarized politics, heâ€™s earned praise from space enthusiasts of both parties.Â
These selections were made in consultation with Chad Anderson, general partner, Space Capital; Reed Sturtevant, general partner, the Engine; Jory Bell, general partner, Playground Capital; Alex Fayette, principal, ACME Capital; Chris Quilty, founder, Quilty Analytics; and Dr. Hannah Kerner, assistant research professor at University of Maryland.