Commercial Space Activities

Commercial Space Activities

Brief Introduction

The “Space Economy”

As published by the Space Foundation in The Space Report 2021 Q2, the global space economy in 2020 was $446.9 billion, up 4.4% from 2019 and up 55% for the decade. This annual report from the Space Foundation tracks worldwide spending by governments, the private sector and consumers. According to the report (available for purchase), the space economy is comprised of the following segments:

  • commercial infrastructure and support industries, 30.7% ($137.23 billion)
  • commercial space products and services, 49.1% ($219.44 billion)
  • U.S. government space budgets, 11.6% ($51.80 billion), and
  • non-U.S. government space budgets, 8.6% ($38.40 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.

President Trump retained that definition is his December 9, 2020 National Space Policy with one exception. The word “space” is omitted prior to “goods, services, or activities…”

U.S. COMMERCIAL SPACE POLICY

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.

During the four years of his Administration, President Trump signed an updated National Space Policy, seven Space Policy Directives (SPDs), five space-related Executive Orders, two strategies, two reports, and one National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM).  Not all are directed at commercial space policy, but all are listed here in chronological order for completeness.

As of February 21, 2022, the Biden-Harris Administration has not yet issued any new space policies, but Vice President Kamala Harris, as chair of the National Space Council, released a Space Policy Framework on December 1, 2021 in conjunction with the first meeting of the Space Council under her leadership. It covers all aspects of space policy, including national security. Biden released an Executive Order the same day expanding the membership and duties of the Council, which supersedes the two issued by Trump (in 2017 and 2020).

Historically, in addition to his 2010 National Space Policy, President Obama issued a National Space Transportation Policy and associated fact sheet on November 21, 2013 that updated a George W. 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’S COMMERCIAL CARGO (COTS) AND COMMERCIAL CREW PROGRAMS

NASA is engaging in the most visible examples of public-private partnerships in the space arena although the national security space program is adopting this strategy as well. Although they are referred to as “commercial,” the government often provides the largest share of money for development and/or a guaranteed market.

It began with NASA’s 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 operational commercial crew launch was in November 2020.  In the interim, NASA paid Russia to take its crews to and from ISS.

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 Space 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 ocean.  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 SLC-40 was repaired. SpaceX introduced a new version of Cargo Dragon on the 21st launch in December 2020.  Based on the Crew Dragon design, it can dock rather than berth with ISS, has greater payload capacity, and lands in the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico near its launch site instead of in the Pacific near its manufacturing facility in Hawthorne, CA.

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 that was expected to debut in 2021, but has slipped to 2022. A NASA official told reporters at a February 18, 2022 press conference prior to the NG-17 launch that the first Dream Chaser flight is on the books for the end of the year.

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 required 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/Orion. 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 were 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 2020, almost exactly a nine-year gap.

The SpaceX crewed flight test, Demo-2, with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken was successfully accomplished from May 30-August 2, 2020.  (Demo-1 was an uncrewed test flight in March 2019.) The system then was certified as by NASA operational for its needs and the first operational flight, Crew-1, launched in November 2020.

While waiting for the commercial crew systems, NASA purchased crew transportation services from Russia at a cost that rose to a high of $90 million per seat. NASA intends to continue launching astronauts on Russia’s Soyuz, and Russia to launch cosmonauts on the U.S. systems, to ensure all are trained to fly on all the vehicles, but an agreement has not been reached yet. From NASA’s standpoint, it is supposed to take place with no exchange of funds. Whether these plans are affected by Russia’s current actions towards Ukraine remains to be seen. U.S.-Russian space cooperation so far has weathered terrestrial geopolitical tensions since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and engaged in other activities contrary to the interests of the United States and its allies, but this appears to be an escalation.

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 was 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 Chaser and won an award under the CRS-2 contract.

SpaceX and Boeing continued to develop their systems. Each was required to fly an uncrewed test flight followed by a crewed test flight before NASA certifies 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 2020 crewed test flight, Demo-2.

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 January 2021, Boeing and NASA set March 25, 2021 as the launch date for OFT-2, but that slipped to July and then to August 3. Boeing had to scrub the launch about two hours before liftoff because 13 propulsion valves would not open. The launch was postponed to sometime in 2022 as the company analyzes and fixes the problem. As of February 21, 2022, a new launch date for OFT-2 had not been set. Boeing says it will take about 6 months between whenever OFT-2 successfully flies and the first operational flight, Starliner-1. NASA is hoping Starliner-1 will take place before the end of this year.

While the success of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is generating considerable excitement, it is important to remember that it is 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 was 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 it is difficult to say if that was a success.

Another goal was for the commercial crew companies to find non-NASA customers and SpaceX is demonstrating success on that score. In September 2021, an all-commercial crew of four flew the Inspiration4 mission, spending three days in Earth orbit. Jared Isaacman, the wealthy entrepreneur who paid an undisclosed price for the entire mission, subsequently announced he is paying for another three SpaceX missions, two of which will be on Crew Dragon. The third will be the first human spacefight of SpaceX’s Starship, which is still in development.

Separately, Axiom Space has purchased at least two Crew Dragon flights, the first of which is scheduled for launch on March 30, 2022. Unlike the Isaacman flights, these will visit the International Space Station. Russia has taken a number of tourists to the ISS (see below), but it will be a first for the United States.  All the ISS partners (the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries) must agree to whoever will visit the ISS. The partners approved the Axiom-1 (Ax-1) crew in January 2022. The four-person crew will be commanded by a former NASA astronaut, Michael López-Alegria. The other three are wealthy men. The price per seat has not been disclosed but is rumored to be $55 million apiece.

One additional note since Presidents sometimes like to take credit for successful ideas even though they predate their tenure, 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 commercial aspects of the Artemis program (see below) can be attributed to the Trump Administration in due course.

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.  On the other hand, both companies have had to pay themselves to fix problems like recovering from SpaceX’s 2019 explosion and Boeing’s OFT reflight

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).

OTHER COMMERCIAL SUBORBITAL AND ORBITAL VEHICLES, ROCKET ENGINES

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. Historically, government agencies have been the providers of these services and also are users along with academic institutions and others.

Two U.S. companies, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, now are sending people and experiments into space on suborbital rides.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Group created a company, Virgin Galactic, to take anyone with the requisite funds (the pricetag initially was $250,000, but has risen to $450,000) on suborbital flights using SpaceShipTwo (SS2), a derivative of SS1. 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, later 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 SpaceShipTwo craft, Unity, is now flying. The company achieved a milestone in December 2018 when two pilots flew SpaceShipTwo above 80 kilometers (50 miles), which some consider the dividing line between air and space. 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 80 kilometers. Moses is the company’s Chief Astronaut Instructor and the first woman to make a spaceflight on a commercially-developed space vehicle. On July 11, 2022, Branson himself flew over the 50-mile threshold with other Virgin Galactic employees (including Moses on her second flight), but no flights for paying customers have been made as of February 21, 2022.

There is no legal definition of where air ends and space begins. Virgin Galactic and the FAA use 80 kilometers, but the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), which certifies air records, uses 100 kilometers (62 miles) as that boundary. That was the altitude Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites had to achieve with SpaceShipOne in 2004 to win the Ansari X-Prize.

Blue Origin uses that line of demarcation. Owned by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin’s reusable, suborbital rocket is, New Shepard, named after Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space in 1961. The company flew 15 test flights, some carrying scientific payloads for NASA, before the first flight was passengers on July 20, 2021, the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. Bezos himself, along with his brother, Mark, famed aviatrix Wally Funk, and a German teenager, Oliver Daemen, make the approximately 10 minute flight up across the 100 kilometer mark and back down to the Texas desert. Daemen was the first paying passenger, but the price was not disclosed. Blue Origin had conducted an auction for the first seat on New Shepard and the high bid was $28 million. Oddly, the person who won the auction paid the money (which Bezos distributed to groups involved in STEM education) but decided not to fly at that time. He kept his identity secret untl December 2021 when he revealed himself to be Justin Sun, a cryptocurrency entrepreneur.

Since then, Blue Origin has flown two more passenger flights, one of which took Star Trek actor William Shatner to space for real. The company plans a regular cadence of flights going forward. Sun said he plans to be on a flight at the end of 2022. Flights carrying only scientific experiments with no passengers also are planned.

In 2020, NASA announced that it also is interested in flying people on suborbital vehicles like SpaceShipTwo or New Shepard either as part of astronaut training or scientists who want to conduct experiments.  In October 2020, it selected Alan Stern as the first person to fly under this new “SubC” program. Stern is a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) perhaps best known as the Principal Investigator of the New Horizons mission that flew past Pluto.  NASA last flew people on suborbital flights in the 1960s with the Mercury and X-15 programs.

Orbital launches are much more difficult than suborbital flight, but a number of entrepreneurial companies are developing such systems to launch satellites, far too many to track here. [SpaceX is the only company developing rockets to launch not only satellites, but people, into orbit (and beyond) on a entrepreneurial basis.]

The most successful so far is Rocket Lab, a U.S.-based company that currently launches from New Zealand, but has built an additional launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Rocket Lab was one of three companies to get NASA contracts in October 2014 for “Venture Class” launch services to place very small satellites (cubesats, microsats, and nanosatellites) in orbit. By February 2022, Rocket Lab  had successfully launched its Electron rocket 20 times, with three failures. It carries payloads for many customers. NASA is only one.

The other two were Firefly Space Systems and Virgin Galactic, which later created Virgin Orbit 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 seems to be making a comeback. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne failed during its first test flight May 2020, but a successful launch took place in January 2021 and more have followed.

Stratolaunch was an air-launched concept announced in December 2011 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, SpaceX founder Elon Musk, and Burt Rutan, who 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 its 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 was 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 focus on using his next rocket, then called the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), for human spaceflight.

In September 2018, Musk announced that a Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa, had purchased the first BFR flight around the Moon, planned for 2023.  (Maezawa later decided to try out spaceflight closer to home and visited the International Space Station on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in December 2021.) BFR is a two-stage vehicle and Musk renamed the first stage “Super Heavy” and the second stage, which will carry the crew or cargo, “Starship.” Confusingly, the combination is also referred to as Starship. Musk is conducting tests of Starship at his Boca Chica, TX site near Brownsville. He named that test facility “Starbase.” See below for more about Starship.

OTHER COMMERCIAL SPACE CONCEPTS FOR EARTH ORBIT AND THE MOON INCLUDING NASA’S ARTEMIS PROGRAM

Human Habitats and Modules.  Robert Bigelow, owner of Budget Suites of America hotels, worked 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 never pursued that. In fact, in December 2021, Bigelow transferred title and ownership of BEAM to NASA, so the company has apparently abandoned its space aspirations.

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 NEXTStep-2 was a new venture 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. The Ixiom concept 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. Not much has been heard about in several years and it appears to have been abandoned.  Meanwhile,  Nanoracks moved on to develop the commercial Bishop Airlock that is attached to ISS to make it easier to deploy cubesats.

Ixiom should not be confused with Axiom Space, the company led by former ISS program manager Mike Suffredini that is building a commercial space station module and flying astronauts to the ISS as discussed below.

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 updated the pricing policy in May 2021.

NASA requested $150 million in FY2020 to facilitate the commercial LEO effort, but Congress allocated only $15 million. It repeated its $150 million request in FY2021, but received only $17 million.

Nonetheless, in January 2020 NASA awarded a contract to Axiom Space to attach a module to ISS that eventually will later separate 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. Although the launch of Axiom’s module now is not planned until 2024, the company is proceeding with plans to launch astronauts to the ISS. As noted above, the first flight, Axiom-1  (Ax-1), is scheduled for March 30, 2022.

NASA chose three more companies in December 2021 to design commercial space stations to succeed the ISS: Blue Origin partnered with Sierra Space and others, Nanoracks partnered with Lockheed Martin and others, and Northrop Grumman partnered with Dynetics and others. These modules would not initially attach to ISS, but exist as free-flying space stations from the outset.

Commercial Space and the Artemis Program to Return Astronauts to the Moon.  In March 2019, NASA was directed by the Trump Administration to return humans to the lunar surface by 2024, four years earlier than NASA was planning. The program is named Artemis after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.  (See our Civil topic for more information.)

The Biden Administration supports Artemis, but acknowlegeded in November 2021 that the first Artemis human landing will not take place at least until 2025. The short deadline imposed by the Trump Administration did shape NASA’s approach to accomplishing the goal with a strong focus on commercial as well as international partnerships.

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 was not “mandatory” to get astronauts on the Moon by 2024, but insisted it will be needed after that to support “sustainable” operations on the lunar surface. Gateway remains part of the plan.

NASA owns SLS and Orion (Boeing and Lockheed Martin, respectively, are the prime contractors), but 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 from companies just as it now buys commercial cargo and commercial crew services to ISS.  That concept is controversial and legislation introduced in 2019 in the House would have required the government to own the HLS systems.  The bill never proceeded beyond subcommittee markup, however.

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. The PPE is 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.

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.

PPE and HALO were to be launched separately and dock once in lunar orbit. 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.

NASA intends to evolve the Gateway beyond the PPE and HALO, adding modules and other hardware provided by international partners. Supplies would be delivered by international and/or commercial partners.  The agency has agreements with Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency (ESA), all existing partners in the International Space Station (ISS) program, to contribute hardware. Canada will supply a robotic arm, Canadarm3, similar to those it built for the space shuttle and ISS. ESA will build the European System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications (ESPRIT) refueling module and, with Japan, an iHAB international habitation module. NASA is discussing with Russia, another ISS partner, the possibility of providing an airlock, but no agreement has been reached. As for commercial partners, SpaceX won the first Gateway logistics contract in 2020.

Human Landing Systems (HLS). NASA originally planned to build the HLS systems using traditional contracts where it would be the owner. Its notional design comprised 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.

After the directive to get people back on the Moon by 2024, however, NASA decided to procure the HLS systems through public-private partnerships, leaving the design 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 had a number of partners including SNC.

Blue Origin’s bid was the only one resembling NASA’s three-stage concept: transfer vehicle, lander, and ascent vehicle.  Blue Origin’s Blue Moon concept was the lander. Lockheed Martin would have provided the ascent vehicle based on Orion.  Northrop Grumman would have provided the transfer vehicle based on Cygnus.

Dynetics proposed a two-stage concept, and SpaceX proposed one-stage, Starship (although many Starships are required, not just one).  Quick descriptions of the three designs are available in an April 30, 2020 SpacePolicyOnline.com article.

The companies spent 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. In April 2021, NASA selected SpaceX to proceed, prompting protests from Blue Origin and Dynetics to the Government Accountability Office, which denied the protests in July 2021. Blue Orign then sued NASA in federal court, but also lost.

At the time, NASA was still committed to returning astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024, though many were skeptical that could be achieved. As noted earlier, some in Congress object to the entire concept of allowing the private sector to own the landers. More importantly, congressional appropriators provided only 25 percent of the funding NASA requested for FY2021 to proceed with HLS development.  The Biden Administration supported the 2024 goal, but later acknowledged it would not happen at least until 2025.

NASA thinks it imperative to have two HLS contractors to ensure competition and redundancy, but the cut in funding in FY2021 meant NASA could choose only one, SpaceX. As noted above, Blue Origin protested the award, but lost. NASA still thinks having two companies, not one, is crucial and points out the contract with SpaceX is only for the first crew return to the Moon. It opened a Lunar Exploration and Transportation Services (LETS) solicitation in 2021 for landings after that.

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 simply buy services from the companies. 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, with the expectation that the companies will find other customers to put other payloads on the vehicles to make it profitable. 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.” Its plan is for two CLPS launches per year.

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 eligible for task order assignments.

The first three task orders were awarded to Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines, and Orbit Beyond in June 2019. Orbit Beyond withdrew shortly thereafter. The other two companies planned to launch in 2021 — Astrobotic on the first launch of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, and Intuitive Machines on SpaceX’s Falcon 9. In 2020, three more task orders were awarded: Masten Space Systems to deliver nine NASA instruments to the lunar South Pole in December 2022, Intuitive Machines to deliver the PRIME-1 drill by December 2022, and Astrobotic to deliver NASA’s VIPER lunar rover to the lunar South Pole in late 2023. In 2021, Firefly won a task order to deliver 10 NASA science and technology payloads in 2023.

The Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic launches that were to take place in 2021 slipped to 2022. Masten’s 2022 planned launch has slipped to 2023. As of February 21, 2022, the cadence would be three this year (one Astrobotic, two Intuitive Machines), and three in 2023 (Astrobotic with NASA’s VIPER rover, Firefly, and Masten).

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

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. Eight countries joined the United States in signing those Accords by the end of 2020 and several more have signed since then.

The list of 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.

U.S. AEROSPACE COMPANIES

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)
  • Dynetics, a Leidos Company (space systems)
  • International Launch Services (launch services)
  • L3Harris (Harris and L3 merged in 2019, previously Harris acquired Excelis) (spacecraft instruments)
  • Maxar Technologies (incorporating Space Systems Loral, DigitalGlobe, and Radiant Solutions — earth observation and communications satellites and services)
  • Raytheon (spacecraft instruments, acquired Blue Canyon in 2020)
  • Sierra Nevada (spacecraft and instruments)
  • SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) (launch services, crew spacecraft, satellite communications)

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

Entrepreneurial companies:

MAJOR NON-U.S. AEROSPACE 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 January 26,2021.  Didn’t find what you were looking for? Let us know by emailing us at info@spacepolicyonline.comó