Commercial Space Activities

Commercial Space Activities

Brief Introduction

The “Space Economy”

As published by the Space Foundation in Quarter 2 of the The Space Report 2019: The Authoritative Guide to Global Space Activity, the global “space economy” in 2018 was $414.75 billion, up from $383.51 billion in 2017. 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 $414.75 billion space economy is comprised of the following segments:

  • commercial infrastructure and support industries, 24% ($99.69 billion)
  • commercial space products and services, 55.3% ($229.17 billion)
  • U.S. government space budgets, 11.6% ($48.31 billion), and
  • non-U.S. government space budgets, 9.1% ($37.58 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). 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. President Trump has issued five Space Policy Directives (SPDs), a National Space Strategy, and an Executive Order on exploration, recovery and use of space resources. Not all impact commercial space policy, but are listed here for completeness.

  • Space Policy Directive 1 (SPD-1), December 11, 2017, replaces two sentences of the 2010 National Space Policy regarding NASA’s human spaceflight program.  It directs NASA to return humans to the lunar surface as a steppingstone to human exploration of Mars instead of an asteroid as the Obama Administration planned.
  • National Space Strategy, March 23, 2018, states the strategy to implement national security, commercial and civil space policy.
  • Space Policy Directive-2, May 24, 2018, takes steps towards designating the Department of Commerce (DOC) as the “one-stop shop” for commercial space regulations.  Three federal agencies are currently responsible for regulating commercial space activities:  the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) that regulates, facilitates and promotes the commercial space launch and reentry business; the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that assigns radio frequencies and issues licenses for commercial satellite systems; and the DOC and its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that issues licenses for commercial remote sensing satellites.  After SPD-2 was released, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced that he wanted to 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.  That later became a proposed Bureau of Space Commerce instead.  It requires implementing legislation.  The 115th Congress considered such legislation, but it did not pass.
  • Space Policy Directive-3, June 18, 2018, establishes agency roles and responsibilities for space situational awareness and space traffic management.  It designates 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).  Implementing legislation did not clear the 115th Congress.
  • Space Policy Directive-4, February 19, 2019, proposing establishment of a U.S. Space Force as part of the U.S. Air Force.  That was implemented in the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act (see our Military topic).
  • Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources, April 6, 2020, establishing U.S. policy on mining resources on the Moon and other places in the solar system, especially with regard to commercial exploration, recovery and use of such resources.
  • Space Policy Directive-5, September 4, 2020, establishing principles for space cybersecurity.

President Barack Obama issued the 2010 National Space Policy,and a National Space Transportation Policy and associated fact sheet on November 21, 2013 that updated a Bush policy.  Bush issued a policy for commercial remote sensing satellites in 2003.

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 first test launch of astronauts aboard a commercial crew system, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, took place on May 30, 2020 and the mission is currently in progress.  NASA has been relying 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 starting 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. (OSC) in 2008 to replace Rocketplane Kistler.

OSC merged with ATK in 2015 and became Orbital ATK (OA).  OA was acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2018 and became Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NGIS). After a company reorganization, as of January 2020 it now is Northrop Grumman Space Systems (hereafter NG)

The 2011 date slipped to 2012 (SpaceX) and 2013 (NG), 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 NG 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.  Contracts with both companies were later extended adding more flights to cover through 2018 and a new round of CRS-2 contracts were awarded in 2016 for later years.  In that round, a third company, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), was added.

SpaceX’s cargo spacecraft is called Dragon.  It is currently referred to as Cargo Dragon to distinguish it from the version that takes astronauts to space — Crew Dragon.  Cargo Dragon spacecraft are launched on Falcon 9 rockets from the Air Force’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral, FL and NASA’s Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s adjacent Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX leases those facilities from the government.

Cargo Dragon spacecraft return to Earth and splash down in the Pacific Ocean off of California.  It 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 NG’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 a test flight of Cargo Dragon to ISS in May 2012. The first operational Cargo Dragon 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/Cargo 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.  Launches moved over to LC-39A until SC-40 was repaired.

NG typically uses its Antares rocket to launch its 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.

NG conducted a 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.  A recovery plan was quickly announced  under which it  consolidated its remaining cargo requirements 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.  The company decided to replace the NK-33/AJ26 engines entirely and use new Russian RD-181 engines for Antares instead.  While waiting for the retrofit, it purchased launch services from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for Atlas V launches of Cygnus to meet its contractual commitments to NASA.  Antares returned to service from Wallops in October 2016, but the company can use either Antares or Atlas V.

NASA awarded a second round of commercial cargo launches (CRS-2) in January 2016.  SpaceX and NG each won a minimum of six launches each and SNC was also awarded a minimum of six launches using an automated version of its Dream Chaser spacecraft.  Dream Chaser resembles a small space shuttle and SNC 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.  Dream Chaser will launch on ULA’s new Vulcan rocket scheduled to debut in 2021.

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.  He wanted NASA to spend several years investing in “game-changing” technologies before deciding on what systems to build and where to go.

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, was 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 commercial crew. The law requires that the SLS/Orion system also be able to function as a backup for commercial crew in case those systems did not materialize or if they failed. 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 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.

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 began the downward trajectory. Congress approved the requested amounts.

With the termination of the space shuttle program in July 2011, NASA could not launch astronauts to the ISS until the commercial crew systems are operational.  Initially this “gap” between the end of the shuttle program and the availability of commercial crew services was expected to last four years, but the first commercial crew flight did not take place until May 30, 2020, almost exactly a nine-year gap.

That flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is ongoing.  NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken docked to the ISS in the Crew Dragon they named Endeavour on May 31, 2020.  NASA and Space X stress this is a test flight, “Demo-2.”  (Demo-1 was an uncrewed test flight in March 2019.) The system will not be certified as operational until they return and the spacecraft can be inspected.  How long they will remain on ISS has not been decided, but NASA and SpaceX have tentatively set August 30, 2020 for the first operational flight, “Crew-1.”

While waiting for the commercial crew systems, NASA has been purchasing crew transportation services from Russia at a cost of approximately $82 million per seat.  NASA expected commercial crew to be ready by 2020 and NASA paid for seats through April 2020. In case there are any problems identified with the Demo-2 Crew Dragon test flight, NASA purchased one more Soyuz seat for a launch in October 2020. Even when the U.S. commercial crew systems are operational, NASA intends to continue launching astronauts on Soyuz, and Russia will launch cosmonauts on the U.S. systems, to ensure all are trained to fly on all the vehicles. That is supposed to take place with no exchange of funds, however.

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 at that time.

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’s Crew Dragon capsule is described above. Boeing is also developing a capsule, CST-100 Starliner. As noted above, SNC’s Dream Chaser, is a winged vehicle that resembles a small version of the space shuttle.  In fact, it is based on a NASA design (HL-20) for an ISS crew rescue vehicle that the agency cancelled in the 1990s.

On September 16, 2014, NASA awarded FAR-based fixed price contracts for 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, 2014 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 she would not overturn it.  GAO denied Sierra Nevada’s protest. As described above, SNC currently is focusing on providing cargo services using Dream Chase and won an award under the CRS-2 contract.

SpaceX and Boeing continued to develop their systems.  Each is required to fly an uncrewed test flight followed by a crewed test flight before NASA will certify them for operational use.

SpaceX successfully conducted its uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, in March 2019, but the capsule was destroyed the next month during preparations for an In-Flight Abort (IFA) test.  SpaceX successfully conducted the IFA test in January 2020, paving the way for the crewed test flight, Demo-2, now in progress as described above.

Boeing attempted its uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) of the CST-100 Starliner on December 20, 2019.  The launch aboard an Atlas V rocket was successful, but the Atlas V leaves Starliner in a suborbital trajectory.  Starliner’s own engines must take the spacecraft into orbit and the rest of the way to the ISS.  A software problem set Starliner’s Mission Elapsed Timer (MET) to the wrong time and left the spacecraft with too little propellant to reach ISS.  It landed two days after launch. During those two days, Boeing engineers seeking to find the problem with the MET discovered a separate software failure that could have proved catastrophic during landing. They fixed it just in time and landing was successful.  Because the launch and landing were successful, NASA and Boeing initially painted a positive picture of the test despite its inability to perform rendezvous and docking operations with ISS.  However, the post-flight investigation showed troubling failures at Boeing and the decision was made to refly the OFT before attempting the crewed flight test. Because this is a fixed price contract, Boeing must pay for the additional test.  In late May 2020, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he did not expect the OFT reflight until the end of the year and there is no decision on when the crewed test flight will take place.

While the ongoing SpaceX Crew Dragon test flight is generating considerable excitement, it is important to remember that it is taking place four years later than planned.  Advocates place the blame for the delay on Congress because it provided less-than-requested funding in the early years. That is correct for FY2011-FY2014, but since FY2015 the request has been essentially fully funded, undercutting that argument.  One of the goals of using a commercial approach was to save time and money over traditional government procurements, so categorizing this as a success or not is complicated.

Assuming all goes well and Crew Dragon is certified for operational use by NASA, the door will open for SpaceX to send anyone who can afford a ticket to orbit. These paying customers are often referred to as space tourists.  One goal of the commercial crew program is for NASA to be just one of many customers of these crew transportation services.  SpaceX already has signed a deal with Space Adventures to take four tourists on a 5-day excursion (not involving the ISS) and another with Axiom Space to take four tourists to Axiom’s module attached to the ISS.  Russia has taken a number of tourists to the ISS (see below), but it will be a first for the United States.

One additional note.  It important to remember that regardless of when flights took place, commercial cargo was a Bush Administration initiative and well underway by the time President Obama took office.  Commercial crew was an Obama Administration initiative and well underway by the time President Trump took office.  The Trump Administration can justifiably take credit for the commercial aspects of the Artemis program (see below), but commercial cargo and commercial crew predate this administration.

Are Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo Really Commercial

The names “commercial cargo” and “commercial crew” imply that the systems are being built at the expense of the private sector, but the companies are supported by taxpayer dollars. NASA spent about $800 million on the COTS commercial cargo program for system development and continues to pay separately for services. The commercial crew CCtCAP awards to SpaceX and Boeing are for a total of $6.8 billion of taxpayer money.  How much the companies themselves are investing is proprietary information and neither NASA nor the companies will say how much they are spending.

At a September 2012 congressional hearing, NASA’s then-Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier conceded that the government was paying 80-90 percent of the costs for the development of the commercial crew systems, but a more current figure is not available.  In recent years both companies have had to pay to fix problems like SpaceX’s 2019 explosion and Boeing’s OFT failure.

It is more accurate to refer to these as public-private partnerships (PPPs) than commercial activities, and the PPP terminology is, in fact, being used more often as NASA extends this acquisition model to other activities like the Human Landing Systems for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024 (described below).


Suborbital flights that do not go into orbit around Earth, but fly to a high altitude and provide several minutes of microgravity when returning to Earth, are commonly used in the United States and elsewhere 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 now are interested, however, in sending people into space on suborbital rides.

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 (SS1) 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), a derivative of SS1, 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 the date for when customers will get their chance to fly has slipped repeatedly.  The company achieved a milestone in December 2018 when two pilots flew SpaceShipTwo above 50 miles (80 kilometers), which some consider the dividing line between air and space rather than 100 km.  On February 22, 2019, it achieved another milestone when two pilots were joined by another Virgin Galactic employee, Beth Moses, on a second flight above 50 miles.  Moses is the Chief Astronaut Instructor and the first woman to make a spaceflight on a commercially-developed space vehicle, earning “commercial astronaut” wings. Nevertheless, no flights for paying customers were made in 2019 or, so far, in 2020 (June 3).

Blue Origin, owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, is developing a reusable, suborbital rocket, New Shepard. Demonstrating reusability is key to the company’s business plan and the same vehicle has now made a number of test flights.  No one has been aboard the test flights.  Plans to launch people, most recently promised for 2019, remain unfulfilled.

Orbital launches are much more difficult than suborbital flight, but a number of entrepreneurial companies are also developing such systems.

In October 2014, NASA’s Launch Services Program awarded contracts for “Venture Class” launch services to place very small satellites (cubesats, microsats, and nanosatellites) in orbit.  The three awardees were Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab USA, and Virgin Galactic (Virgin Orbit was later created as a separate part of Branson’s Virgin Group to develop the air-launched LauncherOne). Firefly filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April 2017, but appears to be making a comeback.  Rocket Lab USA has conducted a number of launches already from its launch complex in New Zealand and has built a second launch complex at Wallops Island, VA.  Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne attempted its first test launch to orbit in May 2020, but it failed.

Stratolaunch was 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 was intended to fly to a high altitude and  release the spacecraft, which would have its own propulsion system to continue its journey to space.  The company’s plans changed following Allen’s death in 2018.  Early reports were that the company would close, but it appears to be remaking itself into a company to test hypersonic vehicles.

Blue Origin is planning rockets much larger than the suborbital New Shepard.  New Glenn is being designed for Earth orbiting missions and New Armstrong to send payloads to the Moon. (Its rockets are named after the U.S. astronauts who first reached space, orbit, and the Moon, respectively.) Blue Origin also is building rocket engines using a different type of fuel (liquid natural gas, or methane) than traditionally used.  Called BE-4, it has been selected by the United Launch Alliance for its new rocket, Vulcan, which will replace the Atlas V in the early 2020s.

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 now also is interested in missions to the Moon. In March 2017, he announced he would send two people around the Moon in 2018 in a Dragon capsule launched by his Falcon Heavy rocket.  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 his next rocket, the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), for human spaceflight. In September 2018, he announced that a Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa, has purchased the first BFR flight around the Moon, planned for 2023.  BFR is a two-stage vehicle and Musk renamed the first stage “Super Heavy” and the second stage, which will carry the crew, “Starship.” Musk is conducting tests of the Raptor engine that will be used for Super Heavy and Starship at his Boca Chica, TX site near Brownsville.


Human Habitats and Modules.  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.  In January 2013, NASA signed a $17.8 million contract with Bigelow Aerospace to add one of Bigelow’s 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.  At one point, Bigelow wanted NASA to attach a full size B330 module to the ISS in 2020, a concept he called XBASE, but has not pursued that.

NASA opened a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for the NEXT Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NEXTStep-2) in 2016 to solicit ideas for space habitats.  Six companies were selected in August 2016:  Bigelow, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman), Sierra Nevada, and Nanoracks.  Nanoracks is best known for arranging transportation for very small satellites (cubesats) to be delivered to the ISS for deployment into orbit.  Its participation in this initiative was a new step for the company and it teamed with Space Systems Loral (now Maxar Technologies) and 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.

Ixiom 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.

Recognizing that the ISS will not last forever, NASA is trying to encourage companies to build their own space stations in low Earth orbit (LEO), an effort called “commercial LEO.” It contracted with 13 companies in 2018 to conduct studies of a potential LEO commercial space economy, but results released in May 2019 painted a questionable outlook.

In June 2019, NASA announced new policies intended to entice companies to get into the commercial LEO business, including opening more commercial opportunities on ISS such as allowing space tourists to visit, with a price list of what they must pay for services like life support. The prices do not include transportation to get to and from ISS, which a customer would have to arrange with one of the commercial crew providers.

NASA requested $150 million in FY2020 to facilitate the commercial LEO effort, but Congress allocated only $15 million.

Nonetheless, in January 2020 NASA awarded a contract to Axiom Space to attach a module to ISS that eventually will separate from it and operate as a free-flying commercial space station. Two months later, Axiom announced a deal with SpaceX to fly four tourists to its module in 2021.

Commercial Space and the Artemis Program to Return Astronauts to the Moon.  In March 2019, NASA was directed by the White House to return humans to the lunar surface by 2024, four years earlier than NASA was planning.  The program now is named Artemis after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.  (See our Civil topic for more information.) The agency plans to make extensive use of public-private partnerships to accomplish that challenging goal.

NASA’s overall concept (“architecture”) initially was to launch astronauts in Orion crew capsules aboard Space Launch System (SLS) rockets to a small space station, Gateway, in lunar orbit.  There the astronauts would transfer to a Human Landing System (HLS) to get down to and back from the surface.  Once back at Gateway, they would return to Earth in Orion.

The architecture was challenged by some experts as too complicated.  NASA later decided the Gateway is not “mandatory” to get astronauts on the Moon by 2024, but insists it will be needed after that to support “sustainable” operations on the lunar surface.

NASA owns SLS and Orion (Boeing and Lockheed Martin, respectively, are the prime contractors), but it is planning to acquire the Gateway and HLS through commercial and international partnerships.  NASA does not want to own the HLS systems, but instead purchase services just as it buys commercial cargo and commercial crew services to ISS.  That concept is controversial and legislation pending in the House would require the government to own the HLS systems.

Gateway.  The initial version of Gateway will consist of only two components:  a Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and a Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO).

NASA signed a firm fixed-price contract with Maxar Technologies, which builds communications satellites (formerly the Space Systems Loral unit), for the PPE wherein it would build and launch the PPE and own it for one year after launch for an in-space flight demonstration.  NASA then would have the option to buy it.  NASA signed a sole-source contract with Northrop Grumman for HALO, which is based on the design of the company’s Cygnus commercial cargo spacecraft.

However, NASA changed its mind in the spring of 2020 and now plans to integrate PPE and HALO together on Earth and launch them on a single rocket. NASA has not determined which rocket, but asserts that it knows SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is capable of doing that.

The PPE was intended to be outfitted with much larger than usual solar panels that could provide 50 kilowatts (kw) of power for a solar-electric propulsion (SEP) system enabling Gateway to change its orbit around the Moon to meet various scientific objectives.  It is not clear if that is still the plan.  NASA’s Glenn Research Center and Aerojet Rocketdyne are already testing a 12.5 kw Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS) that is the basis of the PPE system.

NASA intends eventually to expand the Gateway with contributions from commercial and international partners, including a robotic arm (Canadarm3) from Canada similar to those it built for the space shuttle and International Space Station; an iHAB international habitation module provided by Japan and Europe; the European System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications (ESPRIT) module; possibly a Russian airlock; and logistics provided by commercial companies. SpaceX won the first Gateway logistics contract in 2020.

Human Landing Systems (HLS). NASA had a notional design of the HLS comprised of three stages:  a Transfer Vehicle to reach a lower orbit around the Moon than is possible with the Gateway; a Descent Vehicle to reach the surface; and an Ascent Vehicle to return to Gateway.

The actual design, however, was left to the companies proposing to build them. On April 30, 2020, NASA awarded 10-month study contracts to three bidders: a Blue Origin-led “national team” with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper; SpaceX; and Dynetics, which has a number of partners including SNC.

Blue Origin’s bid is the only one that resembles NASA’s three-stage concept: transfer vehicle, lander, and ascent vehicle.  Blue Origin’s Blue Moon concept is the lander. Lockheed Martin will provide the ascent vehicle based on Orion, and Northrop Grumman will provide the transfer vehicle based on Cygnus. Dynetics proposed a two-stage concept, and SpaceX proposed one-stage, Starship (although several Starships are required, not just one).  Quick descriptions of the three designs are available in an April 30, 2020 article.

The companies are spending their own money in addition to the NASA awards ($579 million to Blue Origin, $253 million to Dynetics, and $135 million to SpaceX) on the concept studies, which are due in February 2021. NASA then will decide which concepts to pursue. That will give the companies just 3.5 years to build and test their systems to ensure the astronauts can safely land on and return from the Moon, an extremely aggressive schedule. Many are skeptical it can be achieved, and as noted earlier, some in Congress object to the entire concept of allowing the private sector to own the landers.

Robotic Lunar Landers.  Even before the Trump directive to accelerate the human return to the Moon by four years, NASA established a PPP program for companies to build and launch small robotic lunar landers that will precede astronauts as well as work in tandem with them for lunar exploration.

Through this  Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, NASA will buy services from the companies, but they must develop and launch the landers on their own.  NASA will provide only science and technology experiments to be placed on the landers, and money.  The failures in 2019 of small lunar landers built by Israel’s SpaceIL (Beresheet) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (Vikram) underscored how difficult it is to successfully land on the Moon.  NASA says it realizes the difficulty and will be satisfied if only 50 percent of the CLPS missions succeed, calling it “taking shots on goal.”

NASA awarded Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts to nine companies in 2018 and five more in 2019 to deliver NASA payloads to the lunar surface.  They are now eligible for task order assignments.  The first three task orders were awarded to Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines, and Orbit Beyond in June 2019, but Orbit Beyond withdrew shortly thereafter.  The other two companies are aiming to launch in mid-2021.

Asteroid Mining and Other Unsuccessful Ventures.  Not all commercial space ventures are successful, but some can lead to policy changes nontheless.

Two U.S. companies were pursuing asteroid mining, but neither is active in that business now.  Planetary Resources Inc. announced plans in April 2012 to mine asteroids with the backing of billionaires including 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, however, the company emphasized that it wanted to prospect, not mine, asteroids, and later said it would focus on plans for earth orbiting satellites to study Earth.  Ultimately, the company folded and was acquired by blockchain company ConsenSys in October 2018.

Deep Space Industries (DSI) announced its plans in January 2013.  In June 2016, DSI announced that it would 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.  On January 2, 2019, it was acquired by Bradford Space Systems, a European company, to produce a water-based electrothermal propulsion system called Comet.

Although the companies failed in their asteroid mining pursuits, they did stimulate a policy debate about ownership of space resources.  In November 2015, President Obama signed into law the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA), P.L. 114-90, which allows U.S. companies 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.

Those objections have had little impact on U.S. policy, however.  On April 6, 2020, President Trump signed an Executive Order spelling out the U.S. position in favor of commercial companies mining space resources and retaining rights to them. In May 2020, NASA announced plans to sign bilateral agreements, the Artemis Accords, with countries that want to participate in the Artemis program that further detail rights to lunar resources.

The list of other unsuccessful entrepreneurial space ventures is quite long. Among those that received substantial media coverage is XCOR, which was planning to send tourists into space, but went bankrupt.  A December 30, 2018 story in the Los Angeles Times reports that individuals paid as much as $100,000 for tickets and now are struggling to get their money back. Another failure was Golden Spike. In December 2012, Alan Stern, a space scientist and human spaceflight advocate, announced the company would 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 were 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 was to be $1.4 billion per mission, which would take two people to the lunar surface and back. By May 2016, the company’s website was no longer active.

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 was 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 was one of the best.  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 was “unable to commit to sharing expenses” with him.  The idea nevertheless evolved into a “Mars Flyby 2021” concept championed for several years by House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) that would be a NASA mission.  Launching in 2021, it would have first flown 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 retired at the end of the 115th Congress.

The number of entrepreneurial companies planning suborbital or orbital missions near Earth or further out in space is continually changing and some companies that go bankrupt come back to life.  It is not feasible to keep this summary up to date, but hopefully provides useful information.


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 including for people include:

  • Aerojet Rocketdyne  (rocket engines)
  • Ball Aerospace (spacecraft and instruments)
  • L3Harris (Harris and L3 merged in 2019, previously Harris acquired Excelis) (spacecraft instruments)
  • International Launch Services (launch services)
  • Maxar Technologies (incorporating Canada’s MacDonald Dettwiler Associates or MDA, Space Systems Loral, DigitalGlobe, and Radiant Solutions — satellite manufacturing and services, robotics)
  • Raytheon (spacecraft instruments)
  • Sierra Nevada (spacecraft)
  • SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) (launch services, crew spacecraft, satellite communications)

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.

Updated June 3, 2020.  Didn’t find what you were looking for? Let us know by emailing us at