2024 is likely to be a defining year for the global space sector. This year, many of the participants — private and governmental — are focused on the potential emergence of more next-generation launch vehicles that can take lunar landers to the moon and eventually Mars. There will be a push by the private sector to transport more of its own astronauts to the International Space Station, such as Axiom’s recent successful delivery of three private citizens, the third all-private mission to the ISS.
2024 was also supposed to be the Year of the Moon with a flood of lunar activity scheduled, including missions by Intuitive Machines Nova-C and China’s Chang’e 6. So far, trips to the moon have had mixed results. On January 8, America’s first soft-landing attempt in 50 years was scrubbed because of a malfunction on the privately funded lunar lander, despite a near-flawless debut by the next-generation launch vehicle that put the lander in orbit. A day later, NASA pushed back its Artemis moon missions by a year, with crewed orbit of the moon now set for September 2025 and the astronauts’ lunar landing delayed until September 2026, because of challenges facing private sector partners. Meanwhile, Japan’s SLIM moon craft made a successful landing, only to have the mission compromised by a sudden loss of power.
But regardless of how many missions get to the moon, commitments and investments made in 2024 by NASA, China, SpaceX, and the rest of the private sector are likely to shape the future of space exploration and development and help define NASA’s role. As Oliver Wyman’s space team argued in a recent Forbes commentary, 2024 could be especially critical for the American effort to retain its leadership role in exploration, military capabilities, and commercial space. Without deeper commitments from US industry players and especially the federal government, the US may not be able to keep up with the accelerating space race and need for cutting-edge space technology.
Because 2024 could be so decisive, the Oliver Wyman space team stepped back and identified four major trends to watch this year:
1. A redefined space race between the US and China
While the 20th century space race pitted the US against the former Soviet Union, China has become America’s principal rival in the 21st century, investing billions to challenge longstanding US dominance in both military and commercial arenas. China has made space once again a contested domain between two great world powers by turning it into a key focus of its military, civil, and commercial innovation and investment.
Among its growing list of space accomplishments China has successfully landed on the Moon and announced a program to land Chinese astronauts on the moon by 2030. China also has an active space station in orbit around the Earth, dozens of military satellites, and a highly accomplished space industrial base that launched 67 rockets in 2023 — including new technology modeled after SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology.
NASA has vowed to beat China in landing astronauts on the moon, and the Pentagon has promised faster, more agile procurement to ensure America’s critical national satellite networks remain resilient and cutting-edge amid growing threats. Last year, the Space Development Agency launched 23 new satellites of the 370 it has on order. The agency now plans an aggressive cadence of 11 launches in 11 months, even as the US Space Force, SDA’s parent organization, oversees critical progress in the next generation of critical geostationary, polar orbiting and global positioning (GPS) satellites.
2. NASA’s evolving role vis-à-vis the private sector
NASA has served as the face of America’s global space accomplishments since its creation in 1958, and its activities as the leading governmental body for space always have had global ramifications. In the face of constrained budgets, NASA has been increasingly leaning on the private sector to fulfill its space ambitions. It has created programs that include using traditional space partners such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and Boeing, as well as programs using a cadre of newer space entrepreneurs all born in this millennium, including SpaceX, Blue Origin, Axiom, Astrobotic, Voyager and Intuitive Machines. But NASA’s growing reliance on the private sector involves trade-offs and risks for the agency, and by implication America’s space enterprise.
For example, SpaceX — space’s 800-pound entrepreneurial gorilla with a current estimated $180 billion valuation — six times NASA’s annual budget — is simultaneously helping NASA get to the moon and Mars as a critical contractor and technology partner and competing with it with its own “Occupy Mars” program. Is this implied competition productive in terms of making sure US astronauts are the first to make it to Mars? The jury is out, but it raises many questions for NASA and its stakeholders.
3. The year of a new next-generation launch vehicle
In 2023, SpaceX completed a whopping 98 rocket launches — 86% of all launches that year. The next test flight of its game-changing Starship could come in March 2024.
SpaceX’s overwhelming launch market share, driven by its innovative technology and development approaches, makes it by far the world’s dominant global provider. But it too has had its share of setbacks, with Starship unable to complete its mission on two 2023 test flights.
Even with the United Launch Alliance’s successful first flight of the Vulcan Centaur on January 8, all other next-generation launch vehicles designed to compete with SpaceX are far behind schedule. These include Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ H3, which exploded on a test flight in 2023, the aborted test flight of the European Space Agency’s Ariane 6 last year, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and Rocket Lab’s Neutron rockets.
2024 will be a year in which government space leaders will have to ponder how to balance the benefits of SpaceX’s prowess in critical launch capabilities, with the desire to foster innovation, competition, and a diverse space industrial base.
4. Space financing and business evolution
2023 saw big changes in the industry, some very visible financial problems, and some big successes. for the year saw several significant space acquisitions, including Maxar’s takeover by private equity firm Advent for $5.5 billion, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s purchase by L3Harris for $4.7 billion, and Ball Aerospace’s merger with BAE North America for $5.5 billion.
But many emerging “new space” companies struggled. The New Space Index* was down 69% versus 2022 valuations and 86% versus 2021. For some companies it was even more dire: Astra Space defaulted on a $12.5 million loan, Momentus struggled to stay aloft, and former industry darling Virgin Orbit — a spinoff of Virgin Galactic — went bankrupt and liquidated all its assets.
Conversely, many new and emerging space companies saw critical progress. Rocketlab further proved out its core electron launch vehicle and won a prime contractor position with the US Space Force. Axiom Space sent its third set of private astronauts to the International Space Station and raised $350 million in new capital, while Blue Origin saw its long-awaited BE-4 engines successfully power the first flight of the ULA’s Vulcan Centaur.
2024 is also likely to see more space consolidation, the development of new technologies closer to Earth, such as artificial intelligence-enabled earth imaging and asset tracking, and new satellite networks focused on direct-to-mobile-phone communications.
Authors: Stephen Ganote, Samantha Burns, Jacob Finke, Kyle Van Hooren, Kim Lord, Andrew Penn, and Tim Wickham