“Selling Shovels in a Gold Rush”: Its Relevance to the Space Economy


The phrase “selling shovels in a gold rush” is drawn from a historical economic paradigm, specifically the California Gold Rush, which started in 1848. In this era, while many prospectors sought fortunes through the direct act of mining for gold, some astute entrepreneurs, such as Levi Strauss and Samuel Brannan, created immense wealth by selling supplies – including shovels, picks, and clothing – to the miners. The concept posits that in times of intense economic growth or speculative bubbles, providing the necessary tools, services, and infrastructure can often be more lucrative than directly participating in the rush itself. This concept remains relevant today, particularly when examining the burgeoning space economy.

The Current “Gold Rush”: The Space Economy

The 21st century has seen an unprecedented acceleration in space-related activities. The space economy is expanding with an increasing number of public and private entities striving to exploit space’s potential resources and opportunities. Whether it is space tourism, mining asteroids for minerals, or satellite-based services, the race is on to stake a claim in this cosmic frontier.

However, the challenge of space is that it requires highly specialized services and products – from consulting, to communications, to rocket fuel. As the space economy grows, so too does the demand for these vital “shovels”.

The “Shovel Sellers” in the Space Economy

In the space economy, the “miners” include: startups; commercial companies; governments; NGOs; individual and institutional investors. Companies that provide specialized services and products to the miners are the “shovel sellers” in this modern-day gold rush. The following are some key examples:

Consulting Services: As the space sector becomes more complex and competitive, there is an increasing demand for specialist advice on a wide range of issues, from regulatory compliance and risk management to technology and innovation strategy. These consulting services help companies navigate the unique challenges of space activities, much like a map or a guide in a gold rush. Firms like Bryce Technology, Deloitte, PWC, and Euroconsult are examples of organizations that offer consulting services for space-related matters.

Financial Services: The space economy requires significant investment. Financial institutions that offer IPO services, merger and acquisition services, investment services, insurance, and risk management solutions are playing a role in enabling this new economic frontier. This is similar to banks and insurers in the time of the gold rush that provided the financial infrastructure necessary for prospectors and businesses.

Training and Education: With the growth of the space sector, there is a rising demand for specialized knowledge and skills. Universities and training programs offering courses in aerospace engineering, or space law, for example, are vital to preparing the next generation of space professionals.

Propellant Manufacturers and Providers: For rockets to launch into space, they need propellants. Companies that provide the necessary propellants that enable rockets to launch are expected to benefit from the increasing number of launches per year.

Ground Station Services: Companies like KSAT, SSC, Amazon AWS, and Atlas Space Operations provide critical services such as satellite communications supporting data downlink/uplink capabilities. They serve as the bridge between Earth and space, enabling the collection, processing, and dissemination of information from satellites and spacecraft.

Note that the list is not comprehensive. Other examples are discussed in the following articles: Ancillary Services: Supporting the Space Economy’s Expansion, The Space Economy: Unlocking New Opportunities for Economic Development, and Economic Linkages of a Spaceport: Guiana Space Centre.

Looking Forward

It is important to recognize that the analogy has its limitations. Space, unlike the finite gold resources, offers a potential for an essentially infinite expansion of resources and opportunities. As such, the space economy could sustain multiple, simultaneous “gold rushes,” each with its own set of shovel sellers.

“Selling shovels in a gold rush” in the context of the burgeoning space economy offers a unique lens to understand the potential opportunities and challenges that lie ahead in the cosmic frontier. The gold rush might be in space, but the real fortune may lie with those selling the shovels.