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The Evolution of Commercial Space Flight (February 2023): The Commercialization of Space

By Brian Shmaefsky

The Commercialization of Space

Throughout the 1980s, commercial space industries still served NASA and the Department of Defense in a traditional contracted-services role. These industries provided propulsion systems, instrumentation, satellites, occupant accessories, and spacecraft components strictly according to government specifications. At the same time, however, they were developing similar facilities to meet their own needs. The types of space transport vehicles being developed independently by commercial industries were regulated by categories defined by the OCST, as found in Commercial Space Transportation, a commercially published compilation of congressional hearing statements and US government communications on the space launch industry edited by Jocelyn Gunther. These categories included Amateur, Experimental, and Licensed, reflecting different specifications for propulsion power, flight trajectory, and distance, together with different permits needed for safe operation. Launch sites also came under scrutiny as these companies began building their own launch sites and spaceports.6 Both spacecraft design and spaceport needs are crucially determined by the planned space flight trajectory. In Fundamentals of Aerospace Engineering, Ali Baghchehsara and coauthors explain the spacecraft engineering considerations for low Earth orbit—sometimes styled LEO—and geostationary transfer. This “beginner’s manual” also provides definitions for critical terms such as orbital flight, a trajectory in which the vehicle remains in space for at least one orbit at an altitude greater than 160 kilometers or 100 miles. Note that while the FAA does not define exactly where space begins, the government recognizes anyone aboard a vehicle flying more than 50 statute miles above Earth’s surface as being engaged in human space flight.7 As the term implicitly conveys, transport into LEO entails flight at the lowest altitude that allows one to actually attain and stay in orbit. In a suborbital flight, the spacecraft reaches outer space but does not achieve one revolution around the Earth. Baghchehsara further explains that a geostationary orbit places a spacecraft in a stable position over a particular region of Earth. Spacecraft designs include vertical takeoff and landing, horizontal takeoff and landing, single-stage-to-orbit, two-stage-to-orbit, and single-stage-to-suborbit. The terminology is fairly straightforward, and each design type fulfills a specific capability requirement, defining the type of trajectory and type of payload that may be carried.

The “commercial space race” officially began in 1989 when Space Services Inc. (SSI) and McDonnell Douglas each shipped actual payloads as independent service providers to NASA. The two trips used the traditional Starfire and Delta 1 launch systems then used by NASA. However, this strategy was soon to end as commercial space industries began to develop their own spacecraft throughout the 1990s. NASA itself had a lot to gain from the commercial space industries: using these providers, the agency would not be burdened with the research and development costs of designing new space vehicles, and they were discovering that commercial entities could deliver payloads more cost-effectively than a government agency could. This transition to commercial activities is discussed in Brad Bergan’s Space Race 2.0. As Bergan recounts, after the commercial space flight efforts of SSI and McDonnell Douglas began to fade from media accounts in the early 2000s, Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic made their respective debuts. But these three companies were planning to do much more than merely join the ranks of service providers for the government. With appropriate fanfare, they announced plans to make space flight available to all people: in effect, space would no longer be the exclusive domain of government. And as government agencies themselves began to acknowledge, space would indeed be accessible to commercial shipping entities, public communication enterprises, corporate natural resources providers, and the tourism industry. The significant government policy shift behind these developments is retrospectively described by James Dillingham in his congressional hearing testimony of June 20, 2012, discussed in the previous section. But Jack Gregg, in The Cosmos Economy, looks ahead at space as a frontier, explaining the complementary strategy adopted by commercial space flight companies: beginning with a limited number of services based on current needs and technologies, then ramping up to a diverse set of products and services uniquely suited to space flight, offering various forms of participation to attract emerging consumer interests and markets.

Christian Davenport develops the story of the first private space-race rivalry in The Space Barons, pointing out, for example, that entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk were each individually capable, in the early 2000s, of outspending NASA and enlisting an abundance of aerospace engineers to hasten the evolution of human space flight. Their approach certainly differed from the established, analytical, and sometimes ponderous approach to space flight design that had become part of the NASA brand, with the agency typically sparing no effort to diminish the chance of failure before a protype was built. Any potential failure or actual setback became the subject of methodical evaluation, a research project in itself. In her book NASA and the Space Industry, Joan Bromberg describes this operational strategy in detail. By contrast, both Blue Origin (the space flight services company founded by Bezos) and SpaceX (Musk’s spacecraft manufacture and space-launch services startup) have succeeded in speeding up the process, in part by adopting an “agile” design strategy that encourages successful release of a continuous stream of novel prototypes. In 2000, Blue Origin became the first start-up company to enter the commercial human space flight arena. Two decades later in her newly released Astrotopia, Mary-Jane Rubenstein describes and critiques Bezos’s plans and intentions for colonizing space and reducing the cost of space flight, marketed as a program for increasing the general accessibility of space travel. Rubenstein questions the need to populate low Earth orbit space stations, casting a harsh light on Bezos’s proposition that millions of people will one day live and work in space. Next to enter the scene (in 2002) was Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, which launched the first commercial suborbital human space flight in 2004. Musk’s success with his initial and subsequent space flights are described by Erik Seedhouse in his newly updated book, SpaceX: Starship to Mars, echoing Musk’s ambition in the title. As detailed by Seedhouse, one of Musk’s goals for SpaceX is colonization of Mars for both habitation and acquisition of natural resources. Regardless of whether such goals are realistic or desirable, both Blue Origin and SpaceX did succeed in complementing NASA’s list of accomplishments by developing reusable launch and entry vehicles and performing precision vertical landings.8 Founded in 2004 by Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic has also entered the new space race by promising affordable commercial space flights for space tourists. In Virgin Galactic: The First Ten Years, Seedhouse focuses on Branson’s success with converting suborbital flights using a spaceship resembling traditional horizontal takeoff airplanes. Branson set the new space-race record as the first commercial space flight company founder to travel personally to outer space in 2022. This feat performed by Virgin Galactic has reinvigorated the drive to perfect hypersonic flight with traditional commercial passenger and cargo aircraft. In his book Beyond Blue Skies, Chris Petty describes the history of the rocket plane programs that have aimed at developing hypersonic planes capable of orbiting the Earth. As Petty explains, Paul Allen (2011 founder of Stratolaunch) is now Branson’s direct competitor, with a fleet of hypersonic passenger and cargo space planes in the development phase.

As this literature attests, the commercial space startups of Bezos, Branson, and Musk have fueled the establishment of more companies looking to find their niche in this new space race. They are all adhering to the philosophy of reducing the cost of space exploration, as detailed in the Roadmap to Space Settlement, published by the National Space Society and currently in its third edition.9 The independent Rocket Lab was founded by New Zealand entrepreneur Peter Beck in 2006, set up as a space launch vehicle and flight services provider for anyone desiring to conduct outer space research with orbiting satellites. Beck’s enterprise eventually gained two cost-per-flight competitors: Astra Space in 2016, and FireFly Aerospace in 2017. In The Space Industry of the Future, Mark McElroy projects a vision of how enterprises such as these will become a major sector of the commercial space flight industry. Meanwhile, the large aerospace companies that developed rocket-system services as government contractors in the past, including Arianespace, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Sierra Nevada, and United Launch Alliance, will continue in their roles supporting NASA and other government space agencies. Again, as McElroy explains, they are already engaged in projects that will be sure to compete with the newer entrepreneurial startups.

Much of the media hype about the new space race has focused on airplanes and rockets. But Stratospheric Balloons by Manfred Von Ehrenfried provides valuable information about the race to perfect balloons capable of prolonged suborbital flight. These balloons are already being used for astronomical and atmospheric studies, meteorology, and Internet network services. According to Von Ehrenfried, space tourism is also a viable commercial option for these balloons. Other unsung contributors to the new space race are the numerous companies that provide ancillary services for commercial space flight. An online visit to the SPACECOM, The Global Commercial Space Conference & Exhibition website provides a snapshot of such vendor sponsors, who market everything from specialized mission-control command systems and instrumentation to medical services and pilot training, as well as space suits, spacecraft furnishings, and transport containers.10

6.  A chart of existing launch sites is available at the FAA website, in addition to organizational and other information on the OCST. See 

7.  FAA provides an outline of the facts on human space flight at:

8. As part of its “Technology Outlook 2030,” international risk and assurance firm DNV provides an overview of the competition between Blue Origin and SpaceX in their development of reusable space vehicle components. See

9. The National Space Society’s mission as “the preeminent citizen’s voice on space” is described at its website: The NSS hosts both online and downloadable versions of the updated (2019) Roadmap. See

10. SPACECOM 2023, the “49th Space Congress,” will be held in Orlando, February 21-23. Details are avalable at: 

Works Cited