Commercial Space Activities

Commercial Space Activities

Brief Introduction

The “Space Economy”

As published by the Space Foundation in The Space Report 2017: The Authoritative Guide to Global Space Activity, the global “space economy” in 2016 was $329 billion, up from $323 billion in 2015.   This annual report from the Space Foundation tracks worldwide spending by governments, the private sector and consumers. According to the report (available for purchase), this $329 billion space economy is comprised of the following segments:

  • commercial infrastructure and support Industries, 38% ($126.26 billion)
  • commercial space products and services, 38% ($126.62 billion)
  • U.S. government space budgets, 14% ($44.44 billion), and
  • non-U.S. government space budgets, 10% ($31.98 billion)

Defining “Commercial” Space Activities

What makes a space activity “commercial” can be difficult to define. Some consider a commercial activity to be one in which a private sector entity puts its own capital at risk and provides goods or services primarily to other private sector entities or consumers rather than to the government. Examples of these activities would be direct-to-home satellite television (e.g. DirecTV and DishTV), satellite radio (Sirius XM), and commercial communications satellites that transmit voice, data and Internet services (such as Intelsat Ltd., SES Global, and Eutelsat).

Other definitions are broader and include sales of consumer equipment by companies even though the satellite system is owned by the government. The chief example of this is the Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation satellite system that is owned by the U.S. Department of Defense, but has a vast array of consumer users ranging from automobile navigation systems to cell phones to precision farming. The devices used by consumers around the world in their cars, on their boats, or carried on their persons are sold by commercial companies, but the satellite signal that makes them work is provided for free by DOD.

Still broader definitions of commercial space activities include those where a company provides services primarily to government customers, such as the Boeing-Lockheed Martin United Launch Alliance (ULA), or the remote sensing satellite company DigitalGlobe. Others do not consider these commercial because they are reliant on the government for most of their revenue and the government shoulders a major portion of the risk because the government requires the services.

In his National Space Policy issued on June 28, 2010, President Obama defined “commercial space activities” in this manner:

The term “commercial,” for the purposes of this policy, refers to space goods, services, or activities provided by private sector enterprises that bear a reasonable portion of the investment risk and responsibility for the activity, operate in accordance with typical market-based incentives for controlling cost and optimizing return on investment, and have the legal capacity to offer these goods or services to existing or potential nongovernmental customers.

Presidential policy remains in effect until another President changes it.  President Trump has modified one portion of the 2010 National Space Policy (regarding human spaceflight), but not this section.


The government plays a major role in commercial space activities in many ways, from establishing regulatory policy, to creating policies that direct government agencies to purchase services from companies, to engaging in public-private partnerships where the government and the private sector share the risks and rewards, to traditional fixed price or cost-plus contracts for services or products.

U.S. commercial space policy has been part of national space policy for decades and today is defined by President Barack Obama’s 2010 National Space Policy, which supersedes President George W. Bush’s 2006 National Space Policy.  President Trump has not yet issued a commercial space policy, so the Obama space policies, including the National Space Policy, remain in effect.  Trump did issue a National Space Strategy, however, that includes national security, commercial, and civil space programs on March 23, 2018.  (A strategy provides the plan on how to implement a policy.)  As discussed below, he also issued Space Policy Directive-2 on May 24, 2018 that affects commercial space policy.

The Obama Administration also released an National Space Transportation Policy and associated fact sheet on November 21, 2013 that updated a Bush policy.  Bush also issued a policy for commercial remote sensing in 2003, which has not been updated.

Three federal agencies are currently responsible for regulating commercial space activities.

  • The Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) regulates, facilitates and promotes the commercial space launch and reentry business.
  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) assigns radio frequencies and issues licenses for commercial satellite systems.
  • The Department of Commerce (DOC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  NOAA is part of DOC and issues licenses for commercial remote sensing satellites.  The Trump Administration issued Space Policy Directive-2 (SPD-2) on May 24, 2018 that Administration officials described as a step toward designating DOC as the “one-stop shop” for commercial space regulation (although companies still will need licenses from FAA/AST and FCC for those activities) including non-traditional commercial space activities such as asteroid mining and satellite servicing.  Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced the same day that he will move NOAA’s commercial remote sensing regulatory affairs office and the Office of Space Commerce (also in NOAA) into a new Space Policy Advancing Commercial Enterprise (SPACE) Administration within the Department, reporting directly to him.  He is seeking congressional approval to create the new Administration.  On June 18, 2018, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3) designating DOC as the civil government agency to interface with the civil, commercial and international sectors on space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic management (STM).

For information on laws that affect commercial space policy, including the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, see our Space Law section.


NASA is engaging in the most visible examples of public-private partnerships in the space arena.  Although they are referred to as “commercial,” the government has provided the largest share of money for development of the systems and a guaranteed market for a certain number of launches.

It began with the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) or “commercial cargo” program to develop systems to take cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), followed by the companion “commercial crew”program to ferry astronauts back and forth.  The impetus for both was a decision by President George W. Bush in 2004 to terminate the space shuttle program as soon as construction of the ISS was completed.  That meant NASA needed to find another way to take crews and cargo to and from ISS for the duration of its operational life.  The shuttle program ended in 2011.  The first commercial cargo flights began in 2012.  The commercial crew systems are still in development.  NASA must rely on Russia to take crews to and from ISS until those commercial crew systems are operational.

Commercial Cargo

NASA initiated the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program in 2006 for the private sector to develop spacecraft and rockets to take cargo to the ISS in partnership with the government.  NASA wanted to ensure competition, so signed Space Act Agreements (SAAs) with two companies, SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler, to begin operational service to the ISS beginning in 2011.  Rocketplane Kistler did not meet its required milestones and NASA terminated that agreement in 2007.  NASA signed an SAA with Orbital Sciences Corp. (now Orbital ATK) in 2008 to replace Rocketplane Kistler.

The 2011 date slipped to 2012 (SpaceX) and 2013 (Orbital ATK), but both systems are now operational and the COTS program, which covered development of the systems, has ended.  NASA held a press conference in November 2013 heralding its success and later released a report.

NASA now purchases cargo services from SpaceX and Orbital ATK under Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts.  NASA initially signed contracts with each company to launch 20 tons of cargo to the ISS through the end of 2016.  SpaceX planned to accomplish that with 12 flights, while Orbital Sciences would do it with eight (but see below).  Contracts with both companies were later extended adding more flights to cover through 2018 and a new round of CRS2 contracts were awarded in 2016 for later years.  In that round, a third company, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), was added (see below).

For these cargo missions, SpaceX launches the Falcon 9 rocket from the Air Force’s Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL and NASA’s Launch Complex 39A at the adjacent Kennedy Space Center.  SpaceX leases those facilities from the government.  SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft returns to Earth and splashes down in the Pacific Ocean off of California.  Dragon is the only cargo spacecraft that services ISS capable of returning cargo to Earth.  All the others — Russia’s Progress, Europe’s ATV (now discontinued), Japan’s HTV and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus — are not designed to survive reentry. They burn up in the atmosphere and therefore are used for trash disposal – a less glamorous, but still critical task — and may also be used for experiments between the time they depart the ISS and reenter, which can be hours, days or weeks depending on the mission.

SpaceX conducted its test flight of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft to the ISS in May 2012. The first SpaceX operational CRS flight took place in October 2012 and five more were successfully conducted through the spring of 2015.  The seventh flight, however, failed 139 seconds after launch. The Falcon 9/Dragon combination returned to flight in April 2016 with the SpaceX CRS-8 (SpX-8) mission.  The flights continue on a regular schedule, although it was disrupted by an explosion at SLC-40 on September 1, 2016 that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and a commercial communications satellites (Amos-6) during a pre-launch test.  No one was hurt, but SLC-40 was badly damaged.  SpaceX has been launching from LC-39A since then, but plans to resume use of SLC-40 in due course.

Orbital ATK typically uses its Antares rocket to launch Cygnus cargo spacecraft to ISS from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, VA.   MARS is located at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, but MARS itself is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and operated by the Virginia Commonwealth Space Flight Authority.

Orbital ATK (the result of a February 2015 merger between Orbital Sciences Corporation and ATK) conducted its test flight of Antares/Cygnus to the ISS in October 2013.  The first operational flight (Orb-1) was launched in January 2014 and Orb-2 in July 2014.   On October 28, 2014, the third mission, Orb-3, failed 15 seconds after liftoff, destroying the rocket and Cygnus, and damaging the MARS facility and surrounding area, though not as badly as first feared.  Orbital quickly announced a recovery plan under which it  consolidated its remaining cargo requirements under the original contract into four rather than five more launches using an upgraded version of Cygnus that can accommodate more cargo per flight.  The failure was traced to the engine, a Russian NK-33 built four decades earlier, refurbished by Aerojet and redesignated AJ-26.  Orbital ATK decided to replace the NK-33/AJ26 engines entirely and use new Russian RD-181 engines for Antares instead.  While waiting for the retrofit, Orbital ATK purchased launch services from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for Atlas V launches of Cygnus to meet its contractual commitments to NASA.  Two Cygnus spacecraft were launched by Atlas Vs in December 2015 and March 2016.  Orbital ATK returned Antares to service from Wallops in October 2016, but ULA launched the next Cygnus, in April 2017. as well.  The next launch on Antares is expected in the fall of 2017.

NASA awarded a second round of commercial cargo launches (CRS2) in January 2016.  SpaceX and Orbital ATK each won a minimum of six launches each and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) was also awarded a minimum of six launches using an automated version of its Dream Chaser spacecraft.  SNC resembles a small space shuttle and the company competed for the commercial crew program, but did not win.  It still hopes to take astronauts to and from space in the future, but for now is focusing on cargo.  It will use United Launch Alliance (ULA’s) Atlas V rocket for launches.

Commercial Crew

President Obama proposed a dramatic change to the U.S. human spaceflight program in his FY2011 budget request to Congress, released on February 1, 2010.  He proposed relying on the commercial sector instead of NASA to build and operate systems to take people to and from low Earth orbit (LEO).  That includes taking NASA astronauts to and from the ISS.   He requested $6 billion over 5 years (FY2011-2015) in NASA’s budget to subsidize companies to develop “commercial crew” launch vehicles and spacecraft for LEO missions.

He also proposed cancelling the Constellation program, begun under President George W. Bush, for NASA to build new launch vehicles (Ares I and V) and a spacecraft (Orion) to take astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars, as well as to and from ISS.   Instead, President Obama proposed that the United States rely on the commercial sector to build new crew space transportation systems for use in LEO, which would free NASA to focus on developing technologies that could someday be used to take astronauts to more challenging destinations beyond LEO.   He wanted NASA to spend several years investing in “game-changing” technologies before deciding on what systems to build.

The lack of a specific destination and timetable for these “beyond-LEO” human spaceflight missions made his proposal especially unpopular and on April 15, 2010, he elaborated on his plans in a speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  At that time he made clear that he saw no need for U.S. astronauts to return to the Moon, but landing people on Mars remained the eventual goal, and he said he expected that to happen in his lifetime.  Meanwhile, he wanted NASA to focus on sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as his initial beyond-LEO destination, and send them to orbit (but not land on) Mars in the 2030s.

Congressional Reaction.  The proposal was very controversial and vigorously debated in Congress. The 2010 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267), signed into law in October 2010, is a compromise wherein NASA is directed to develop its own crew space transportation system — the Space Launch System (SLS) and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) — as well as fund the commercial crew concept.  The law requires that the SLS/MPCV system also be able to function as a backup for commercial crew in case those systems do not materialize or if they fail.  NASA selected the Orion spacecraft that was being developed in the Constellation program as the MPCV, so the system now is usually referred to as SLS/Orion.

President Obama’s FY2012 budget request for NASA, released in February 2011, was similarly controversial because the congressional committees that oversee NASA believed that it contravened the compromise reached in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  NASA requested more money than was authorized in the 2010 Act for commercial crew and less than was authorized for SLS/MPCV.   The tense relationship between Congress and the Obama Administration lasted for several years, wherein Congress made clear that SLS/Orion was the priority, not commercial crew, adding money for SLS/Orion and not providing as much as requested for commercial crew program.  For FY2011, FY2012, and FY2013, Congress provided sharply less funding than the Administration requested.   The request for FY2013 was $830 million, for example, but Congress approved only $525 million.   The request for FY2014 was $821 million and Congress approved $696 million. Though it was $125 million less than the request, it was more than the agency received in the past and the percentage cut was less, leaving many commercial crew advocates happy with the result.  The request for FY2015 was $848 million and in a sign of continued thawing of relationships, Congress approved $805 million. The request for FY2016 was $1.244 billion and Congress appropriated that amount.  FY2016 was the peak funding year for commercial crew and for FY2017, the request of $1.185 billion begins the downward trajectory.  Congress approved that amount.

With the termination of the space shuttle program in 2011, NASA cannot launch astronauts to the ISS until the commercial crew systems are operational.  How long this “gap” between the end of the shuttle program and the availability of commercial crew services will last is unclear. The date for when the U.S. commercial crew systems will be operational keeps slipping from the original 2015 estimate.  At the moment, the companies say it will happen in 2018, but others, including the Government Accountability Office, think 2019 is more likely.   Until then, NASA will continue to purchase crew transportation services from Russia at a cost of approximately $82 million per seat.

Evolution of the Commercial Crew Program.  NASA initially awarded contracts to five companies for Crew Transportation Concepts and Technology Demonstration, or CCDEV (commercial crew development) in February 2010: Blue Origin, Boeing, Paragon Space Development Corp., Sierra Nevada Corp., and United Launch Alliance.  Another round of winners of the CCDEV2 competition were announced in April 2011: Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX.   Those contracts were awarded as Space Act Agreements (SAAs) where NASA can pay companies for meeting agreed-upon milestones, but has less oversight or insight into what the companies are doing compared with traditional contracts.  NASA planned to adopt traditional procurement methods under the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) for the next phase of commercial crew development — specifically, fixed price contracts — but changed course in December 2011 because of budget uncertainties in future years that it concluded made fixed price contracts unrealistic.

The CCDEV program transitioned into the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) program for the commercial companies to develop an integrated crew transportation system (spacecraft, launch vehicle, and ground systems).  In August 2012, NASA selected “2 1/2” proposals, meaning it fully funded two companies (SpaceX and Boeing) and partially funded a third (Sierra Nevada Corporation, or SNC).  SpaceX plans to use its Falcon 9 rocket for commercial crew as it does for the commercial cargo program and a crew-capable version of its Dragon capsule, dubbed “Crew Dragon.”  Boeing is developing a capsule also, called CST-100 Starliner.  SNC’s design, Dream Chaser, is a winged vehicle that resembles a small version of the space shuttle and, in fact, is based on a NASA design (HL-20) for an ISS crew rescue vehicle that the agency cancelled in the 1990s.   Boeing and SNC plan to use Atlas V rockets built by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch CST-100 Starliner and Dream Chaser.

On September 16, 2014, NASA made awards under the final phase of the commercial crew development program, Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP).  It chose Boeing and SpaceX, with Boeing receiving $4.2 billion and SpaceX receiving $2.6 billion.  Sierra Nevada filed a protest of the awards on September 26 with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) saying there were “serious questions and inconsistencies in the procurement process.”  Consequently, NASA issued a stop-work order to Boeing and SpaceX for the CCtCAP contracts, but later rescinded it.  Sierra Nevada filed a lawsuit against the government for that decision, but a judge verbally indicated that she would not overturn it.  GAO denied Sierra Nevada’s protest.  As described above, SNC currently is focusing on providing cargo services and won an award under the CRS2 contract.

Are Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo Really Commercial?

Two important points are that commercial cargo was a Bush Administration initiative and well underway by the time President Obama took office, and that although the names “commercial cargo” and “commercial crew” imply that the systems are being built at the expense of the private sector, the companies are supported by taxpayer dollars.   NASA spent about $800 million on the COTS commercial cargo program for system development (services are paid for separately).   The commercial crew CCtCAP awards are for a total of $6.8 billion of taxpayer money.  How much the companies themselves are investing is proprietary information, but at a September 2012 congressional hearing, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier conceded that the government is paying 80-90 percent of the costs for the development of the “commercial” crew systems.

The government is the major customer for the services the companies offer, providing more funds.  Thus it is more accurate to refer to these as public-private partnerships than “commercial” activities.



Suborbital flights that do not go into orbit around Earth, but fly in a high arc and provide several minutes of microgravity on the return to Earth, also are of interest. They are commonly used not only in the United States, but in many other places around the world for experiments that need minutes, but not hours or days, of microgravity. Traditionally, government agencies are the providers of these services and also are users along with academic institutions and others.

Several U.S. companies have now become interested in providing suborbital launches either for experiments or for sending people into space on a commercial basis. There is no legal definition of where air ends and space begins, but the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), which certifies air records, uses 100 kilometers as that boundary. In 2004, Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites won the Ansari X-Prize award for using its SpaceShipOne to send a pilot over that threshold and back to Earth twice within 14 days (different pilots flew the craft each time).

Richard Branson’s Virgin Group created a company, Virgin Galactic, to take anyone with the requisite funds (approximately $250,000) on such suborbital flights using SpaceShipTwo (SS2), which is still in development.  The plan had been to build five SS2 vehicles.  During a test flight on October 31, 2014, the only existing SS2 vehicle was destroyed in an accident that killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injured pilot Peter Siebold.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the accident, concluding it was co-pilot error, but criticizing the spacecraft’s design that made such an error possible.  Scaled Composites, which is now part of Northrop Grumman, was in charge of building SS2 and the two pilots were Scaled employees.  Virgin Galactic took over construction of the vehicle from Scaled and a second SS2 craft is now being tested, but it is not clear when customers will get their chance to fly.   Virgin Galactic is also building a rocket to launch small satellites to orbit, LauncherOne.  It will not carry a crew.

Blue Origin, owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, is developing a new, reusable, suborbital rocket, New Shepard.  Demonstrating reusability is key to the company’s business plan and the same vehicle has now made five test flights.  No one was aboard those flights, but the plan is to launch people on short suborbital flights.  The company also plans larger rockets capable of reaching orbit (New Glenn) and the Moon (New Armstrong).   Blue Origin also is building rocket engines using a different type of fuel (liquid natural gas, or methane) than traditionally used. It is called BE-4.  United Launch Alliance is considering using the BE-4 for a new rocket it is building, Vulcan, to replace the Atlas V in the early 2020s.  Bezos also has proposed creating an Amazon-like delivery service to the Moon–in partnership with NASA–to deliver experiments, equipment or habitats in support of future lunar exploration.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk is well known for his interest in creating a “multi-planet species” by sending a million people to inhabit Mars as a “backup plan” in case Earth is destroyed by natural or human-caused events.  He also has expressed interest in missions to the Moon.  ln March 2017, he announced that he would send two people around the Moon in a Dragon capsule launched by his Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018.  The Falcon Heavy made its first flight on February 6, 2018, but the day before Musk announced that he had decided against human-rating the Falcon Heavy and instead will focus on using its next rocket, the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), for human spaceflight.  He anticipates the first BFR orbital test launch in about four years (2022).

Other companies also are interested in the commercial suborbital market for experiments, people, or both.  Today they include Near Space Corporation, UP Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, and World View Enterprises (Near Space and World View use stratospheric balloons instead of rockets).  NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) awards indefinite-delivery indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contracts through its Flight Opportunities Program to companies offering suborbital flight services to enable STMD to test technologies from industry, academia and the government in a relevant flight environment.  STMD’s website also explains the program is intended to foster the development of the commercial reusable suborbital transportation industry.  As of June 2016, those four companies plus Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin were under contract.

Separately, in October 2014 NASA’s Launch Services Program (under the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate) awarded contracts for “Venture Class” launch services to place very small satellites (cubesats, microsats, and nanosatellites) in orbit.  The three awardees are Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab USA, and Virgin Galactic.  (Firefly filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April 2017, but as of May 2018 appeared to be making a comeback.)

Stratolaunch is an air-launched concept announced in December 2011 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, SpaceX founder Elon Musk, and Burt Rutan, who is now retired from Scaled Composites, but was a major contributor to the SpaceShipOne effort.  Stratolaunch rolled out its enormous aircraft–described as the largest in the world–for public viewing for the first time in 2017.  Like other air-launched space transportation systems (e.g. Pegasus, SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo, LauncherOne), the aircraft flies to a high altitude and then releases the spacecraft, which has its own propulsion system to continue its journey to space.


Robert Bigelow, owner of Budget Suites of America hotels, has been working for several years on a commercial space station using expandable modules (often referred to as “inflatable,” but the correct term is expandable).  Two subscale prototypes —Genesis I and Genesis II — were launched on Russian rockets in 2006 and 2007 respectively.   Bigelow Aerospace has been working with Boeing for several years to create a transportation system to take people back and forth to full scale space stations when they are launched.  The Boeing spacecraft is the CST-100, which is now part of NASA’s commercial crew initiative (and renamed Starliner).  It would be launched aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle.  In May 2012, Bigelow Aerospace announced an agreement with SpaceX to market their combined capabilities to launch people to space where they could stay aboard Bigelow space stations.  The services will be marketed only outside the United States.  In January 2013, NASA signed a $17.8 million contract with Bigelow Aerospace to add one of Bigelow’s inflatable modules to the International Space Station (ISS). The Bigelow Expandable Activities Module (BEAM) was launched to the ISS in 2016 on the SpaceX CRS-8 (SpX-8) flight and expanded in May 2016.  Bigelow’s structures trace their roots to NASA’s cancelled Transhab project, which was intended to provide crew quarters on the ISS using such a module.  BEAM is a small prototype, and Bigelow wants NASA to attach a full size B330 module to the ISS in 2020, a concept he calls XBASE.

NASA opened a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for the NEXT Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NEXTStep-2) program in 2016 to solicit ideas for space habitats.  Six companies were selected:  Bigelow, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada, and Nanoracks.  Nanoracks is best known for arranging transportation for very small satellites (cubesats) to be delivered to the International Space Station for deployment into orbit.  Its participation in this initiative is a new step for the company and it has teamed with Space Systems Loral and United Launch Alliance (ULA) to create the Ixiom concept.   ULA’s Atlas V rocket uses an upper stage named Centaur.  Ixiom would convert Centaur upper stages into habitats.  America’s first space station, Skylab, was a converted upper stage for the Saturn V rocket, although it was never used as an upper stage.  It was modified into a space station before launch.  (The Ixiom concept should not be confused with Axiom Space, a company led by former ISS program manager Mike Suffredini that also is endeavoring to build commercial space stations.)

Several well known U.S. billionaires working with experienced space entrepreneurs announced plans in April 2012 to mine asteroids.  The company, Planetary Resources Inc., reportedly was three years old at that point, but its founders decided to publicize it only in 2012. Backers of the company include movie producer and explorer James Cameron, Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi who flew into space twice as a space tourist on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and space entrepreneurs Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson. Later the company emphasized that it wants to prospect, not mine, asteroids, which would happen in the future.  Subsequently, Planetary Resources announced plans for earth orbiting satellites to study Earth as another part of its business plan.

Deep Space Industries (DSI), another entrepreneurial space company originally focused on asteroid mining announced its plans in January 2013.  Both companies are working with the government of Luxembourg, which is striving to be a leader in the space resources business.  In June 2016, DSI announced that it will stake an initial 200 million Euros to become the “Silicon Valley” of space resource utilization.  However, in May 2018, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation announced that DSI was a new associate member and described it as a space transportation company offering access to deep space, not asteroid mining.

In November 2015, President Obama signed into law the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA), P.L. 114-90, which allows U.S. companies like Planetary Resources Inc and DSI to claim property rights to resources mined from asteroids.  The U.S. law has not been universally embraced by other countries.  Russia, for example, claims that it violates Article II of the Outer Space Treaty.

Not all of the entrepreneurial efforts are successes.  Among the companies that were planning to build new rockets who have faded from the scene in the past two years are XCOR and Armadillo Aerospace.

Some of the human spaceflight efforts also have failed.  In December 2012, Alan Stern, a space scientist and human spaceflight advocate, announced the formation of a new company, Golden Spike, to sell human trips to the Moon.   Stern is a former NASA Associate Administrator for Science.  He and a number of other former NASA officials, including Gerry Griffin, an Apollo flight director who later was the Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, along with former House speaker Newt Gingrich, entrepreneur Esther Dyson, and former Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson are backers of the project.   The group provided few details of the project at a press conference at the National Press Club on December 6, 2012, such as what rockets or spacecraft would be used.  The cost would be $1.4 billion per mission, which would take two people to the lunar surface and back.  As of May 2016, the company’s website was no longer active, however.

Dennis Tito, another billionaire, who was the first “tourist” to fly to the International Space Station on a Russian spacecraft in 2001, formed another venture called Inspiration Mars. His initial proposal was to send two people, preferably a married couple, to Mars in 2018.  They would not land on the planet, but fly on a free-return trajectory where, once launched from Earth, few maneuvers (and therefore fuel) are needed to get them to and around Mars and return to Earth.  Their closest approach to the Martian surface would be 100 miles.  The year 2018 is important because Mars and Earth are correctly aligned only every 26 months to permit spacecraft to make the journey.  Some opportunities are better than others in terms of the amount of propellant needed; 2018 is one of the best.  The next equivalent opportunity is not for another 15 years.   In November 2013, however, Tito testified to Congress and revealed that he now wanted this to be primarily a NASA mission.  NASA replied that it is “unable to commit to sharing expenses” with him.  The Inspiration Mars website is no longer active.  However, the idea evolved into a “Mars Flyby 2021” concept championed by House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) that would be a NASA mission.  Launching in 2021, it would need to fly first towards Venus to get a gravity assist from that planet to reach Mars since the Earth and Mars are not aligned properly for a direct flight that year.  Rep. Smith has not mentioned it recently.

The number of entrepreneurial companies planning suborbital or orbital near Earth or further out in space is continually changing.   It is not feasible to keep this summary up to date, so it should not be considered exhaustive.


Hundreds of companies are involved in the aerospace sector, even when looking only at the “space” part of the business and not aircraft. The following list is not meant to be exhaustive, but to provide links to some of the companies that are most often referenced in discussions about space policy.  The list of entrepreneurial companies is especially subject to change as new companies enter the business or existing ones merge with other companies or fail.

The “big three” U.S. aerospace companies are:

In addition, Boeing and Lockheed Martin co-own

Other major U.S. aerospace companies that manufacture spacecraft, instruments and/or launch vehicles and/or provide launch services include:

Major U.S. companies that sell space-related products or services include:

Entrepreneurial companies:


There also are hundreds of non-U.S. companies in the aerospace sector. The following list is not meant to be exhaustive, but to provide links to companies that are most often referenced in discussions about space policy.

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