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The Evolution of Commercial Space Flight (February 2023): The Beginning of Commercial Space Flight Industries

By Brian Shmaefsky

The Beginning of Commercial Space Flight Industries

Beginning in the 1970s, NASA’s increased focus on the space shuttle led to a reduction in funding for the expendable launch vehicle (ELV) programs that had driven the agency’s successful space programs to date. By that time, Martin Marietta was building the Titan rockets, General Dynamics manufactured the Atlas rockets, McDonnell Douglas produced the Delta rockets, and LTV Aerospace Corporation provided the Scout rockets. ELVs are single-use rockets, typically launched horizontally. Spacecraft Operations, recently updated and edited by Florian Sellmaier, Thomas Uhlig, and Michael Schmidhuber, describes the different types of launch vehicles produced for NASA by these aerospace companies. These same rockets would later become the basis of redesigns, freed of the design and cost constraint specifications imposed by NASA, that served as the prototypes for new rockets produced exclusively for commercial purposes and flown by private corporations.

President Ronald Reagan’s directive to build the International Space Station (ISS) in 1984 led to many opportunities for academic and commercial scientists to conduct research studies in outer space. These developments are covered in Jay Chladek’s Outposts on the Frontier. In Life in Space, Maura Mackowski picks up the thread, describing how a wealth of life sciences research studies conducted on the ISS have provided valuable data about human safety and work performance in space, illuminating many technical details in the design of machinery and scientific instruments for operation under conditions of microgravity and extreme cold. Crucially, however, in Ronald Reagan and the Space Frontier, John Logsdon explains how Reagan’s administration viewed the conquest of space as not only a global leadership opportunity for the US, but also one for cutting NASA’s budget. Thus, President Reagan’s policies encouraged civilian and commercial involvement in the development of space-based business initiatives and national defense systems. Reagan’s National Security Decision Directive 94, “Commercialization of Expendable Launch Vehicles” (NSC-NSDD-94), in effect provided incentives for the commercial sector to fund innovations in future space exploration. From this point on, NASA’s only role in commercial space flight would be to ensure public safety and the safety of property.4

The commercial space race was formalized in 1984 with the establishment of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (OCST). In his testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space in 2012 (published as Commercial Space Transportation: Industry Trends, Government Challenges, and International Competitiveness Issues), James Dillingham recalls how the OCST was first established under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation, then moved to the Federal Aviation Administration, where it remains today. Dillingham points out that during those early years, the commercial space industries were openly invited to recommend changes to federal space flight regulations, in addition to developing new means for the transportation of commodities and people to and from space. Dillingham also reminds the Subcommittee of plans for NASA to “procure from private launch companies two manned launches per year to the ISS [International Space Station] from 2017 to 2020.”5 More recently, Stella Tkatchova explains in Emerging Space Markets how the privatization of space transportation has indeed spawned new competition for and among the established aerospace companies that traditionally had enjoyed exclusive access to providing contract-based services for NASA. Tkatchova clearly illuminates how the goals of the various companies have shifted accordingly, going beyond providing mere transportation to pursuing the actual exploitation of resources in outer space, as discussed below.

4.  Reagan’s National Security Decision Directives are archived at the Federation of American Scientists website. For NSDD 94, see

5.  Gerald Lee Dillingham, Commercial Space Transportation: Industry Trends, [2012], p. 16.

Works Cited