Investing in Space: SpaceX graduation day

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An aerial view of the company’s Starbase facility outside of Brownsville, Texas.


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Overview: SpaceX graduation day

Tuesday is important for many of the 10,000 or so folks at SpaceX: It’s vesting day.

Twice a year, on May 15 and Nov. 15, employees are granted their stock awards, which can be very lucrative. I spoke to several current and former SpaceX employees about the payouts – and the implications for both the company and the rest of the industry when people secure the bag. Some spoke of wearing vests to celebrate, while a couple others referred to it as “graduation day.” 

It’s a poorly kept secret that employment at SpaceX means long hours and hard work, even if many say it’s the most rewarding of their career. Like many companies, stock awards are part of multi-year equity packages. At SpaceX, they can entice even the most burnt out employee to make it to the next vesting milestone, to compound the payout. But when the awards hit, the door opens.

“You play a game of Pokémon and hold the f— on, as long as you can,” one person told me. “The next two weeks is when a lot of people quit.”

“You tend to see a noticeable bump in departures after a vesting day,” another person said.

The consensus of those I spoke to was that SpaceX’s total compensation emphasizes stock awards more heavily than competitors for the company’s talent, such as aerospace or tech companies. But while the SpaceX salaries might be lower, I was told of some examples where a person’s equity windfall was in excess of their annual pay. And, as another person emphasized, SpaceX has regular liquidity events, with purchase offers roughly twice a year, making it easier for employees to realize the benefit of that stock compensation than they might at other private companies.

The departures don’t just result in SpaceX losing talent. There are now dozens of companies, organizations and more – many in the space industry, as well as adjacent sectors – that feature wealthy former SpaceX employees as founders, executives and more.

“It’s a good thing,” a third person said. It creates “more places to work that are faster paced” than the likes of the large aerospace and defense contractors, they added.

What’s up

  • NASA’s monster rocket takes on a hurricane: The fully-stacked SLS rocket, rolled out last week, weathered Hurricane Nicole in Florida as the agency aims to get the delayed Artemis I mission off the ground. NASA noted before the storm’s arrival that the rocket is designed to withstand winds of up to 85 miles per hour. The launch tower recorded gusts of up to 100 miles per hour during the storm. Any impact on the rocket, or its most recent Nov. 16 launch target, are yet unknown. – NASA
  • SpaceX introduces data restrictions to Starlink: In a move to cap power users of the satellite internet service, the company added a new policy that lowers the priority of customers’ connection after they pass a monthly threshold for data use. – CNBC
  • Rocket Lab reports record quarterly revenue as contract wins continue. The space company expects to conduct its 10th Electron launch of the year, and its first launch from the U.S., in December. It also added contract wins across its space systems business. – CNBC
  • Astra lays off about 16% of workforce amid pivot to new rocket. Astra announced the job cuts alongside its Q3 results, which saw incremental revenue from its spacecraft engine sales. Astra earlier this year suspended launches of its Rocket 3.3 series after a launch failure, and is focused on developing the larger Rocket 4.0 vehicle. Executives believe the company has sufficient runway to reach 2024. – CNBC / Astra
  • Virgin Galactic near completing refurbishment period, with test flights beginning in January: Alongside its Q3 results, the space tourism company outlined the remaining steps to launching its long-delayed commercial service next year. Notably, work on returning its Unity spacecraft to flight, as well as development of its planned Delta-class, means the company’s second spacecraft, Imagine, won’t debut in 2023. – CNBC
  • Blue Origin expects to finish review of New Shepard rocket failure in December: Audrey Powers, vice president of New Shepard mission and flight operations, said the company does not expect to return to flight until 2023, with findings from its investigation to be discussed publicly. – @wapodavenport
  • Maxar aims for January launch of first Legion satellites. The space infrastructure and imagery company also reported a third-quarter profit of $110 million, down slightly from a year prior, with revenue of $436 million. – CNBC
  • Northrop Grumman delivers cargo to the ISS in eventful mission: Launched over the weekend, the Cygnus spacecraft suffered an issue in deploying one of its two solar panels. Despite the problem, the spacecraft docked with the space station as planned. – Northrop Grumman
  • Rocket Lab misses its latest attempt to catch an Electron booster with a helicopter, but it completed the company’s 9th mission of the year successfully. – CNBC

Industry maneuvers

  • Virgin Orbit raises $25 million through debt investment from Richard Branson’s Virgin Group: The rocket company announced the new funds with its Q3 results, with the company reporting revenue of $30.9 million. Its cash is down to just over $70 million. – CNBC 
  • U.S. Army awards Inmarsat with $410 million contract for IoT connectivity. The satellite company’s defense division won the five-year deal, which will help connect battlefield tracking devices. – SpaceNews
  • Redwire promotes Mike Gold to Chief Growth Officer: Gold, who previously served in senior roles at NASA, had been Redwire’s executive vise president of civil space sales. – Redwire
  • Voyager appoints retired NASA astronaut as CEO of portfolio company Nanoracks: The space conglomerate named Tim Kopra as Nanoracks chief executive officer. He was previously the president of OneWeb Technologies after his time at NASA. – Voyager
  • Senior Tesla official reportedly named as a SpaceX VP. According to Bloomberg, Omead Afshar leads operations of Tesla’s Texas plant and was named vice president of Starship production. – Bloomberg

Stock movers

  • Bank of America names Rocket Lab and Terran Orbital as top picks. Despite a brutal 2022 market for space stocks, the firm said the companies are “attractive opportunities available for those investors seeking to invest in high-growth space end markets.” – CNBC
  • Deutsche issues “buy” ratings on satellite imagery stocks Planet and BlackSky: The firm noted that both are “generating substantial revenue now and have visibility toward future growth similar to software companies.” – CNBC

On the horizon

  • Nov. 12 – SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launching satellites for Intelsat from Florida.
  • Nov. 16 – NASA’s current target launch date for the delayed Artemis I mission.