Ladies who launch: Women are powering the private space industry
See who made Fortune‘s 2021 Most Powerful Women list.
Candace Johnson is showing me a photo taken in Kourou, French Guiana, on Dec. 12, 1988. It’s a grainy, black-and-white picture. But her recollection of that day is crystal clear: The photo was taken on the eve of the launch of the first Astra satellite, made by European aerospace company SES, which Johnson cofounded. (Another visionary entrepreneur, Rupert Murdoch, was her very first customer, and he used that inaugural satellite to launch his Sky Television Network.)
The image, uploaded to Johnson’s computer and shared with me over Zoom, depicts two rows of people, the team behind the Astra-1A launch. Some are standing and some are crouching. Most of them are wearing white button-down shirts, khakis, and rectangular name badges. But Johnson is easy to spot. Out of the group of nearly 30, she’s the only one in culottes—and the only woman on the team.
“Had I not been there, none of those men would have been there,” says the entrepreneur, who pushed and fundraised for years in order to pull off the ambitious launch. “So it didn’t really occur to me that I was the only woman.”
Since that day in Kourou, Johnson has helped put many more satellites into orbit. (It’s earned her the nickname “Satellady.”) She has also found herself the only woman in the picture—and the C-suite, and the boardroom—countless more times. Eventually that feeling started to wear on her, and she decided to do something about it: For the past three decades, she has devoted herself not only to innovating and investing in space-based technologies but also to connecting with and expanding the constellation of women who work in the field. “We’re always helping each other,” says Johnson.
The fact that women like Johnson have had to resort to setting up their own networks in a field traditionally dominated by men is not new. Since the days of Sputnik and Explorer 1, women in the space industry have largely toiled away in the shadows of men. (And women of color? Even more so—just watch Hidden Figures, the film that chronicles the careers of three Black, female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race days.) But here’s a new wrinkle: Back when Johnson was getting started, the commercial space sector was tiny. She was a rarity not just because she was a woman but also because she was an entrepreneur. Until the turn of the century, nearly every project that aimed beyond the Earth’s atmosphere was the domain of government-run space agencies, not commercial companies.
No longer. Today, private money is flowing into a range of space-based innovations at light speed. According to BryceTech, a research firm that tracks the sector, $36.7 billion was invested in space startups over the past two decades—with a full 72% of that pot doled out since 2015. This recent uptick in private funding is largely driven by venture capital firms that are betting space is quite literally the next big frontier.
It’s not just investors who are increasingly looking toward the heavens, though. The private space industry has also blasted its way into the public consciousness recently, thanks to the high-flying theatrics—and yes, incredible innovations—of a trio of billionaires: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, and Elon Musk of SpaceX.
These men and their companies are reshaping the way much of the world thinks about the future of space—and many people in the industry say that’s an overall plus for the sector. Their spectacular launches are adding to the allure of working in the field, and attracting more interest from investors.
But the adventures of the flyboy founders also cloud the reality of what’s happening in the industry. All three are emphasizing space tourism, which, while exciting, represents just a fraction of the innovation happening in the sector; the tourism market accounts for $1.7 billion of the $366 billion “space economy,” according to BryceTech. What’s more, the headline-grabbing prominence of Bezos et al. means that the private space sector is at risk of repeating some of the missteps of our earlier, public sector efforts, in which the essential contributions of women were minimized or overlooked.
What’s at stake here? For starters, there’s a huge economic opportunity: Morgan Stanley projects that the global space industry could generate more than $1 trillion by 2040, more than three times current annual estimates. And if women—not to mention people of different ethnicities and races and nationalities—aren’t adequately represented in this burgeoning field, then we are setting ourselves up for yet another industry with chronic inequality. This particular industry happens to matter a lot: The prospects of actually being able to explore and even thrive in space are closer than ever. It may sound futuristic, but that makes enlisting entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds all the more important. In pursuit of the next frontier for humanity, shouldn’t all humanity be represented?
Johnson is already hard at work making sure the answer to that question is an emphatic yes. She’s a builder—as are many of the women she’s slowly but surely added over the years to her now overflowing Rolodex—so she’s not terribly concerned about being left out of the current structures of power. “If you’re not a member of the old boys’ club, you don’t have to worry about being a member of the old boys’ club,” she says.
In other words: You get to create your own club. And that’s exactly what the women powering the private space industry are doing.
Many of my conversations with Johnson begin with her telling me what to do. Specifically, who I “must” talk to—a list that eventually grows to include more than two dozen women, from a Saudi entrepreneur trying to launch her own rocket, to a British founder using nanosatellites to track weather patterns.
Johnson’s network is not only extensive, but also global, stretching across continents. She herself is American, but married a native of Luxembourg and has spent most of her life in Europe. (Johnson was born into the space industry: Her father worked on the first communications satellites for the U.S. government in the ’50s and ’60s.) Early on, she built her network one by one, by going up to any other women she ran into at industry conferences, and sparking a conversation. In 1992, she helped start a more formal organization for those few women working in the satellite telecommunications field in particular (the group now has around 2,000 members).
As the space industry grew to include more and more applications—and more and more private sector companies—Johnson also began mentoring and investing in female space entrepreneurs. One investment led to another, and today Johnson spends much of her time in her role as partner at Seraphim Capital, a London-based firm which calls itself the global leader in “SpaceTech investment.” (Her other primary gig is vice chair of the board at NorthStar, a Canadian company which tracks space debris.) At Seraphim, too, she’s tried to scout out female entrepreneurs specifically. And along the path of her entire career, she’s worked to create opportunities for her female peers to establish themselves, and to stand out.
“There’s an unwritten rule [for women in the industry],” she says. “If someone asks you to do something, like speak at a conference, and you can’t do it, suggest another woman.”
One of the women on her “must” list is Hélène Huby, a French-born entrepreneur who lives in Germany, and who met Johnson six years ago at a space conference. The two hit it off. Huby represents the next generation of women in the sector—a generation that is expanding the horizons of space tech, fueled by the boom in financing and the lowered barrier to entry as the cost of launching satellites, capsules, and, yes, humans into space falls. (A decade ago a typical launch cost $20,000 per kilogram. Today, it’s $2,000.)
Huby, who cut her teeth in the defense and space division of aircraft manufacturer Airbus, runs the Exploration Company, a startup working on a transportation vehicle that can stay in orbit up to six months, gathering and processing data from space for what she hopes will be a variety of customers.
Decades ago only a government program would have had a shot at developing such technology. Then came the big, billionaire-backed startups pouring money into new innovations; SpaceX, in particular, has dramatically lowered the cost of space flight with its advancements in reusable rocket launch systems. (Here’s where I should mention that the highest-profile woman in the industry, SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell, declined to speak to me for this story.)
For entrepreneurs like Huby, there’s a new possibility to piggyback on all this disruption and to take advantage of all the cost reductions people like Musk have brought to the sector.
Of course, getting a space vehicle off the ground, so to speak, still takes time and money. To get there, Huby is trying to generate more immediate revenue by licensing software she’s developed for her own machines to other companies developing space-based operations.
In addition to running her own startup, Huby, like Johnson, now invests in other women’s companies. She also helped start a nonprofit organization called the Karman Project, which runs a fellowship program for space entrepreneurs; roughly half of its fellows are female.
I can see why Huby and Johnson get along so well: Huby, too, sends me her “list,” and a furry of introductory emails soon flood my inbox.
There’s Neha Satak, the Bangalore-based cofounder and CEO of Astrome Technologies, which Huby invested in. It’s Satak’s third space startup—she’s also worked on “asteroid deflection” technology, among other projects. Astrome’s aim is simple but ambitious: to utilize both terrestrial and satellite communication to deliver more bandwidth at a cheaper cost. Part of the secret sauce, says Satak, involves a combination of both hardware and software tweaks to existing satellites. It’s deep tech, involving a lot of engineering talent—which is why Satak, herself a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, has been at it for more than six years. It’s proved to be lonely work sometimes.
“I can tell you that in India specifically, I was probably the only entrepreneur in the ‘New Space’ industry who was female,” Satak says.
Next comes Barbara Belvisi, who is building an inflatable “biopod” that could someday sustain human life on the Moon or even Mars. (Huby is an investor, Johnson an adviser.) The 60-square-meter, environmentally controlled habitat designed for raising crops is being developed in a warehouse on the outskirts of Paris.
I also meet Lynette Tan, another entrepreneur who runs an incubator for space startups, as well as a company focused on developing a curriculum for space-based education, in Singapore. And Vanessa Clark, the Australian cofounder and CEO of Atomos, which is developing an “orbital transfer vehicle” that puts satellites into position. (She calls it a “tugboat” for space.) The tech has caught the eye of the U.S. government; Clark has a $2 million contract with NASA and the Department of Defense.
As these women open their networks to me, I’m repeatedly struck by their commonalities. They dream big and bold. They think in decades, not years—you have to, in the space sector. They are hungry for collaboration, and they invest in one another. Also: None of them are billionaires, or financed by billionaires. And, while they might love to blast off into the great beyond, for the moment they are focused on building their companies right here, on Earth.
Sixty plus years into the Space Age, its a little shocking to think that only about 600 people have actually left the Earth’s atmosphere—and even more so to realize that just 69 have been women. Anousheh Ansari is among that number. The entrepreneur and CEO of the XPrize Foundation, a nonprofit that holds global competitions that push for technological breakthroughs, became the first female “space tourist” in 2006, when she paid an undisclosed sum of money for a seat aboard a trip to the International Space Station. It was a profound experience, says Ansari, and one that made her realize how essential it is that the future of space flight become more diverse: “If you make access to space easy and efficient for all, there are tons of businesses that can be created in orbit,” she says. For that boom to reach its full potential, women and people of color must be included, Ansari notes.
While it’s hard to credit space tourism—which starts around $250,000 per person—with “democratizing” the experience, it has increased the number of women who can add themselves to that tally. In mid-September, SpaceX launched the world’s first all-amateur astronaut crew into orbit. The team successfully completed a three-day voyage inside a Dragon capsule, which hurtled around the Earth at 17,000 miles per hour. The undertaking was financed by yet another male billionaire, payments entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, but the participants included two women, geoscientist Sian Proctor and Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old cancer survivor who became the youngest American to go to space.
Government-run space programs are taking steps toward prioritizing more diverse astronauts—the U.S., for example, is leading the Artemis Program, an effort to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon by 2025. But their history isn’t encouraging. In 2019, NASA was forced to change plans for its first all-female space walk after the agency realized that it only had a suitable space suit for one of the two women astronauts involved (previous budget cuts had prompted the agency to focus on space suits made for male builds).
The space suit snafu didn’t come as a surprise to Dava Newman, director of the MIT Media Lab, a former deputy administrator of NASA—and yet another Johnson connection. She’s known for developing the BioSuit, a lighter-weight, “second skin” space suit that allows astronauts greater range of motion. It’s also designed for people shorter than 5 feet 5 inches (such as Newman), who haven’t fit into NASA’s previous models, and was widely tested on women. Bringing a broader range of people into the field is essential when it comes to pushing such innovations forward, she says. “We have a long way to go—there’s been little incremental change when we look at who the workforce is.”
You’ve probably never heard of Asteroid No. 21887. The 7.6-kilometer-wide hunk of rock is one of millions floating in the main asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter. It was discovered by researchers in Arizona back in 1999. About a decade later, it was bestowed with a much more memorable name: “Dipippo.”
“After 35 years in the business, someone decided that I deserved this,” says Simonetta Di Pippo, director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and namesake of the asteroid formerly known as No. 21887. An astrophysicist by training, and the ex-director of human space flight at the European Space Agency, the Italian-born Di Pippo has devoted her life to the exploration—and democratization—of space. She has also committed herself to growing the network of women in her field, cofounding an organization for European women in aerospace in 2009.
Di Pippo’s current role at the UN is to advance international collaboration when it comes to all things space. That means bringing countries together to promote peaceful uses of outer space, coordinating between different parts of the world and the public and private sectors throughout the globe. It also means focusing on diversity, or making sure that the people driving our decisions in this next frontier are representative of us all.
Space for all is a big priority. Our Earth is suffering a lot, and the more we have people understanding this and how important space is [to our future], the more we will have politicians understanding this, too.Simonetta Di Pippo, Director, UN Office for Outer Space Affairs
The latter is more important than ever. We’ve all seen what happens on Earth when some voices are heard and others are silenced. And innovation and access to space are growing quickly: Di Pippo says that this year alone, 2,000 satellites have already been launched into orbit. Just two years ago, that number was 600 annually. “Space for all is a big priority,” says Di Pippo. “Our Earth is suffering a lot, and the more we have people understanding this and how important space is [to our future], the more we will have politicians understanding this, too.”
Di Pippo’s work on this front is certainly, in practical terms, a bigger deal than getting her own asteroid. But names matter as well. Last March, NASA announced that it had named 27 asteroids after “pioneering” astronauts—Black, Hispanic, and Native American explorers, some of them female. That includes asteroid No. 103738, now known as “Stephaniewilson.” It’s named after Stephanie D. Wilson, an aerospace engineer who has traveled to the space station three times and logged more than 42 days in space. Someday soon Wilson may break even more ground: She is on NASA’s Artemis team and could, perhaps, become that first woman to set foot on the Moon.
In early October, the UN celebrates World Space Week. The global event consists of speeches, competitions, lectures, and camps for kids, all aimed at increasing interest in space. Each year, a theme is picked. In 2020, it was “Satellites Improve Life.” This year, for the first time, it’s “Women in Space.”
Johnson, not surprisingly, is a member of the advisory board. But as excited as she about this year’s theme, she confesses that, personally, she has no desire to leave Earth. I’m shocked—of the dozens of women I spoke to for this story, she’s the only one who doesn’t aspire to experience space for herself. Why? “I’m happy here,” she says, laughing. “I don’t have the stomach for it.”
Even if Johnson herself doesn’t dream of launching herself into orbit, or landing on the surface of the Moon, there are—and perhaps more important, there will be—many who do. Looking for them? She can probably introduce you.
This article appears in the October/November 2021 issue of Fortune with the headline, “Ladies who launch.”
Dive into stories from Fortune’s print edition:
- Firefighters enlist high-tech tools to stave off the West’s increasingly destructive blazes
- How Toyota kept making cars when the chips were down
- Getting burned: Battles over the cost of climate change are scorching California homeowners
- NFTy 50: The most influential builders, creatives, and influencers in the NFT world
- The war to charge your electric car is powering up