For as long as humans have looked up at the sky, they have longed to go into space and explore. But getting people into space sustainably and at scale has been a difficult challenge to meet. However, with recent developments from the private sector, is it too much to hope that a new era of privatized utilization of space is upon us?
A bit before noon on April 8, a rocket bearing four astronauts blasted off into clear skies from a launchpad at Kennedy Space Center for a 22-hour flight to the International Space Station. There, the crew spent eight days performing life-science experiments and technology demonstrations in the microgravity environment of low Earth orbit before returning with a splashdown off the Florida coast.
In 2021 the world saw 143 successful orbital and suborbital launches (13 carrying humans) and those numbers are expected to be surpassed this year, so the recent flight might seem commonplace. That is, if your idea of commonplace includes riding more than a million pounds of thrust to a place with a million-plus bits of space debris shooting by you at many times the speed of a bullet.
The mission in fact was not commonplace. Its 1.7-million-pound-thrust (7,562 kN) Falcon 9 rocket, 220,500-pound-thrust (981 kN) second stage and Dragon crew capsule were built, launched and operated by Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company, SpaceX. The mission was commissioned by Axiom Space, a private, Houston-based human spaceflight services company.
Dubbed Ax-1, the mission was “the first completely private one to the International Space Station (ISS),” said Axiom co-founder and president/CEO, Michael Suffredini. “There have been individuals that have flown on government flights, but never a completely private flight.”
That achievement marks a key milestone in the U.S.’s decades-long, start-and-stop campaign to develop a commercial space sector. Not only would a robust sector bolster America’s economy and sustain its role as a manufacturing, research, and technological leader, advocates maintain. They say it would free NASA from supporting and managing routine activities in low Earth orbit (LEO) to focus on more intense exploration of the moon, Mars and other targets in our solar system and beyond.
NASA has been working toward that milestone since at least 2005. Late that year, then-NASA Administrator Michael Griffin charged a new project office’s staff with “stimulating commercial enterprise in space by asking American entrepreneurs to provide innovative, cost-effective commercial cargo and crew transportation services to the space station.”
The efforts have paid off, despite periodic funding shortfalls from Congress, political shifts, and technical problems with companies’ launch vehicles. NASA signed contracts in 2008 with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to deliver cargo and supplies to the ISS ($1.6 billion to SpaceX for 12 9/Cargo Dragon flights and $1.9 billion to Orbital Sciences for eight Antares/Cygnus flights through 2016). Within a few years, the commercial sector was off and running.
SpaceX has led growth of the commercial space sector, lowering launch costs by perfecting reusable spacecraft. The Falcon 9 that lofted the Ax-1 mission had flown four launches before it lifted off from Kennedy’s historic Pad 39A (the site of Apollo 11’s 1969 liftoff). After separating from the second stage, the Falcon 9 flew back to Florida, then parachuted onto one of SpaceX’s recovery ships in the Atlantic. In carrying Axiom’s astronauts to the ISS, the Crew Dragon capsule dubbed Endeavour made its third flight, and its second to the 357-foot-long (109-meter-long), 21-plus-year-old station.
SpaceX also continually improves its spacecraft. When the company launches a Falcon 9 with a payload of its Starlink broadband Internet satellites, “we’ll push new changes” into the rocket, said William Gerstenmaier, SpaceX vice president for build and flight reliability. “We’ll push new hardware. We’ll push the limits of the rocket. We’re actually changing some of thrust characteristics of the rocket to get more performance out of it.
“That gives us information that helps inform the crew missions, so we actually know where the margins are,” Gerstenmaier said. “We can actually have a safer vehicle for crew missions.”
By 2019, the U.S. space economy accounted for $194.4 billion of market value in goods and services and $125.9 billion (0.6%) of real gross domestic product, according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. The bureau said the industry generated $42.4 billion of private industry compensation and 354,000 private sector jobs.
Space Capital is a seed-stage venture capital firm that itself invests in the space economy and shares analysis of the sector through its online Space Investment Quarterly. Managing Partner Chad Anderson started tracking and analyzing the sector in 2012, focusing on unique space companies that have raised external equity capital. Over the last 10 years, Anderson said, $252.9 billion of equity has been invested in 1,694 companies in the space economy.
Last year alone, venture capitalists invested $17.1 billion in 328 space companies, according to the firm. That topped the previous annual record investment of $9.1 billion in 2020. Those investment levels were spurred in part by near-zero interest rates in the U.S., which are ending.
The commercial sector has gone in that short time from a handful of companies developing launch services under government contracts, others providing satellite communication services and some firms selling space imagery, to a substantial ecosystem.
“It’s not just launch and re-entry anymore,” said Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Karina Drees, who previously led California’s Mojave Air and Space Port. “It’s an entire ecosystem — launch and re-entry, infrastructure, satellite operators and manufacturers, professional services companies, on-orbit companies,” and universities and research institutions with a much larger interest in the space industry. A leading voice for the commercial spaceflight industry, the federation’s 90 members employ more than 75,000 people across the U.S.
The sector is maturing, Kevin O’Connell said. A former director of the U.S. Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce, he was a principal architect of outreach to U.S. private space companies to facilitate innovation and encourage increased market growth and viability.
“We’re making a transition right now,” said O’Connell, who runs the consulting firm Space Economy Rising. “We’re now starting to recognize that space is one of the platforms, if not the platform, through which we’re going to really drive many of the innovations that we both need and expect in the next couple of decades. When folks talk about agricultural technology, health tech and education tech, space is going to be a big part of a lot of those things.”
NASA’s strategy for developing the commercial LEO economy evolved from the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to have three components: cargo transportation, crew transportation, and destinations to which cargo and crews would be flown.
“Cargo you had to start first,” said Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Division for Space Operations. “Mike Griffin, who started the COTS program, would frequently say, ‘You’ve got to walk before you can run,’ so cargo was likely to be the first thing,” since it has fewer safety requirements than crewed missions.
Commercial Cargo began with initial SpaceX and Orbital Sciences contracts. A second phase saw more contracts awarded to SpaceX and Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman) and privately held Sierra Nevada Corp. The last spun off its space operations last year into wholly owned Sierra Space in part to develop the Dream Chaser, a space plane designed to fly a 1.5 g re-entry, for the ISS resupply mission. Dream Chaser is designed to carry up to 12,000 pounds (5,443 kilograms) of cargo in a single trip. Its target is to fly to the ISS next year.
After Cargo, the second component was Commercial Crew, under which NASA in September 2014 selected Boeing and SpaceX to carry U.S. crews to and from the ISS. Boeing proposed doing so with its CST-100 Starliner launched by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V. It is still pursuing NASA certification for the spacecraft, with a second uncrewed flight test slated for May.
Lastly, there is the Commercial LEO Destinations component. On Dec. 2, 2021, NASA said it had signed three contracts to develop commercial LEO station designs to meet government and private-sector needs:
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which received about $130 million, has partnered with Sierra Space to develop Orbital Reef, a scalable “mixed-use space business park” projected to start operating late this decade to provide essential infrastructure for all types of human spaceflight activity. Other teammates include Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering, and Arizona State University. On April 5, Orbital Reef said it had completed its station’s systems requirements review, which the company said was intended to verify that the station’s specifications are a stable baseline for meeting mission and market requirements and support proceeding with development.
Houston-based Nanoracks LLC received about $160 million. It is collaborating with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin on Starlab. Targeted for launch in 2027 on a single flight, Starlab would be a continuously crewed commercial station dedicated to advancing research and fostering commercial industrial activity. Designed for four astronauts, Starlab’s flexible design would host the George Washington Carver Science Park and its main operational departments — a biology lab, plant habitation lab, physical science and materials research lab, and an open workbench area.
Northrop Grumman received $125.6 million to develop its design for a modular, commercial station supported by the ISS resupply Cygnus spacecraft. It would provide a base module for extended capabilities, including science, tourism, industrial experimentation, and the building of infrastructure beyond initial design. Northrop Grumman’s team includes Dynetics, with other partners to be announced.
In February 2020, NASA had awarded Axiom a $140 million, firm-fixed price contract to provide at least one habitable commercial module to be attached to the ISS. Axiom was founded in 2016 to build a commercial space station.
In addition to providing private-sector opportunities in low Earth orbit, commercial stations would ensure the U.S.’s ability to maintain a continuous presence there after the ISS is retired.
With commercial cargo and crew operations well-defined and established and commercial stations coming online later this decade, McAlister said, “that entire LEO industry becomes driven by commercial and business and personal needs as opposed to the government needs.”
The FAA licensed Axiom to conduct the mission, as it has done all commercial space operations in the U.S since 1995. But the FAA did not certify the Falcon 9 for the Dragon capsule; it is not authorized to certify spacecraft. (Neither did NASA certify the mission’s vehicle, although it has certified Falcon 9 and Dragon to carry U.S. astronauts.)
The FAA’s safety role in commercial space operations lies in protecting the safety of the public on the ground and others using the U.S.’s national airspace. In addition to issuing commercial space licenses, that agency verifies that human-rated launch or re-entry vehicles are operated as intended and performs safety inspections. It also regulates spaceflight crew qualifications and training, and licenses launch and re-entry sites in U.S. jurisdiction.
But it cannot regulate the safety of individuals on board a commercial spaceflight. Congress prohibited it from doing that in 2004 and has extended that ban three times. It currently expires in October 2023. That ban’s purpose was “to ensure that the industry has an ample ‘learning period’ to develop,” according to the FAA.
The ban includes an exception under which the FAA can enact regulations governing the design or operation of a launch vehicle that are intended to protect the health and safety of crew and spaceflight participants “if a death, serious injury, or near-catastrophe occurs.” Short of that, development of health and safety regulations for commercial space operations is left to the voluntary efforts of industry members through standards development organizations like ASTM, which has a committee (F47) working on that subject.
In December 2020, the FAA published a new section of regulations, Part 450, to streamline commercial space launch and re-entry licensing requirements. Part 450 is performance-based, “providing a regulatory requirement but allowing industry the opportunity to determine how they will meet that requirement,” the FAA said.
The Axiom Ax-1 crewmembers are Pilot Larry Connor of the U.S. and Mission Specialists Eytan Stibbe of Israel and Mark Pathy of Canada. Each is a billionaire who paid $55 million to fly to the station and conduct research there. “They’re not up there to paste their noses on the window,” Axiom’s Suffredini said. “They really are up there to do meaningful research.”
The crew’s commander is Axiom’s vice president of business development, Michael López-Alegría, a retired NASA astronaut and a veteran of space shuttle and ISS flights.
Flights like Axiom’s Ax-1 mission give NASA officials the opportunity to learn how to work with commercial enterprises in a way that allows them to meet their business goals while still satisfying government requirements. McAlister said the Axiom mission looked the same as other crewed SpaceX ISS launches — same rocket, same capsule, same trajectory. “But behind the scenes, it was very different.”
NASA’s involvement was limited and focused on ensuring that ISS safety and operational requirements were met when the Dragon was within about 125 miles (200 kilometers) — the “integrated operations” range — and while the Axiom astronauts were on the station. The rest of the mission was managed by Axiom, which was responsible for the safety of its crewmembers during launch, ascent, return to Earth and recovery.
“We have worked really hard with the Axiom team and ISS in order to ensure that we’re meeting the requirements, guidelines and policies on the NASA side but still allowing Axiom to meet their visions and goals for their company and their business plans,” Angela Hart, program manager of NASA’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Program. “It’s been a real interesting activity. I think we’ve come to great processes, plans and solutions on a lot of different challenges that we had as we were pulling this together.
“We’re going to continue to learn more and be able to do this better and faster,” Hart said, “and possibly even offer different and more opportunities as we move forward and learn how to work in this commercial arena.”