clock menu more-arrow no yes
(Bruce Weaver/AFP/GettyImages)

Private spaceflight, explained

Corporations are making new strides in space — and pretty soon, they're going to start launching astronauts into orbit.

What's new in private spaceflight?

Three different countries have launched people into space. But now several private companies — including SpaceX and Boeing — are angling to put people in space for the first time.

Corporate involvement here isn't entirely new: private companies' first foray into space came with the launch of private communications satellites in the 1960s, and launching government and private satellites into orbit has been a hugely lucrative business since the 90s. Boeing and other companies have also designed many components and systems used in NASA missions.

spacex dragon

The Dragon V2 capsule, which SpaceX hopes to use to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Recently, though, companies have made new strides in spaceflight. SpaceX has recently begun delivering cargo to the International Space Station, and it — along with Boeing — plans to begin shuttling astronauts there and back by 2017, filling the gap left by the retirement of NASA's Space Shuttle program. Other companies have flown spaceplanes just into the lower edge of space, and hope to eventually use such flights for space tourists.

There are also plenty of other plans of varying plausibility — including putting space tourists in orbit, flying them to private space stations, sending robotic probes to the moon, and mining asteroids for precious metals.

Not all of these plans will come to fruition. But despite a few recent setbacks, some already are. On the whole, private enterprise has made it a very exciting time to be interested in space.

How did private companies get involved in space?

From its earliest days, many of NASA's projects involved collaboration with private companies that designed components. But the first object in space built entirely by a private company was Telstar 1, a communications satellite launched into orbit by a NASA rocket in 1962. Telstar was followed by hundreds of other private satellites involved in communication and other fields.


Telstar 1. (NASA)

For decades, US government policy dictated that only NASA was allowed to put these satellites into space, but in 1984, as part of a broader move toward deregulation, Congress passed a law allowing private companies to conduct their own launches. In 1990, a new law actually ordered NASA to pay private companies to launch their payloads when possible, leading to the development of a billion-dollar industry made up of several companies, of which United Launch Alliance (a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing) is the largest.

A similar trend has occurred in Europe, where the European Space Agency created a company called Arianespace to handle satellite launches.

More recently, NASA has begun to privatize the launching of humans into space as well. With the retirement of the space shuttle imminent in 2010 — and no available spacecraft that was capable of transporting astronauts to or from the space station — President Obama directed NASA to create a program that awarded grants to private companies so they could develop spacecraft to fill this void. (In the meantime, NASA has been wholly dependent on Russia.)

Additionally, a bit of progress been made in developing reusable spaceplanes that can just barely enter the lower reaches of space, for the purposes of space tourism. In 2004, a privately developed craft called SpaceShipOne reached an altitude of 100 kilometers — commonly accepted as the lower boundary of space. Its technology was bought by Virgin Galactic as part of a plan to develop a successor to take tourists into space, though a recent accident could be a major setback.

Space tourism plans could also involve inflatable space stations built by the Bigelow Aerospace company, which has put two test stations into orbit in 2006 and 2007, and has another going up to the International Space Station in late 2015.

What kinds of private spaceflight are happening right now?

Currently, the vast majority of private spaceflight involves companies launching various types of satellites — military, scientific, communication, and others — into space.

There are a number of companies involved, but one called United Launch Alliance (a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing formed in 2006) conducts the majority of American military launches, and is paid an average of $225 million by government agencies for each of them. A company called Arianespace conducts most European launches and is heavily involved in the commercial sector.

ula launch

A United Launch Alliance rocket takes off from Cape Canaveral in 2011. (Photo by Darrell L. McCall/NASA via Getty Images)

Recently, a new company called SpaceX has gotten a lot of attention as it's broken into this field. Started in 2002 by Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk with the goal of making space travel less expensive — in part by creating reusable rockets and other components — it has become the first private company to fly cargo to the International Space Station, and now makes regular resupply missions.

How is NASA involved in private spaceflight?

NASA has worked with private aerospace companies for years, paying them to design specific components and systems. Starting in 1990, a new law directed the agency to have private companies launch its satellite payloads whenever possible. United Launch Alliance (a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin) has been the main company involved in launching NASA payloads, though there are others as well.

Then, in 2006 — with the retirement of the Space Shuttle program looming, and no successor craft ready to take its place mainly because of congressional underfunding — NASA announced that it was seeking private partners to transport cargo and crew to and from the International Space Station.

It's since selected SpaceX and Boeing to fulfill the crew transport missions, and plans currently call for them to begin doing so in 2017 or 2018, with a pair of spacecrafts (the Dragon V2 and CST-100, respectively) in development. In the years since the shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA has relied on Russia to shuttle its astronauts back and forth.

When it comes to cargo, meanwhile, SpaceX has been carrying out resupply missions since 2012, successfully making six trips so far.

spacex space station

The SpaceX Dragon capsule docks at the International Space Station during a resupply mission. (SpaceX)

Another company called the Orbital Sciences Corporation has also contracted with NASA to fly cargo to the space station, and made its first resupply run in June 2014. In October 2014, however, one of Orbital Science's rockets exploded during a launch, and further launches have been postponed as the cause is investigated.

What is space tourism?

Space tourism, in essence, is putting paying customers into space for the purpose of recreation, rather than exploration. Some people involved actually object to the term "tourist," arguing that it overlooks the training and experiments they undertake, and suggest the term "space participant" or "private astronaut" instead.

Regardless, at this point only seven people have actually gone into space as tourists. Between 2001 and 2009, the Space Adventures company brokered deals between seven multimillionaires and the Russian space agency, sending them to the International Space Station on Russian Soyuz rockets for a week or two, at a cost of $20 to $40 million each. These flights have temporarily been put on hold — mainly because the retirement of the Space Shuttle means NASA will pay more to reserve those spots for American astronauts — but they're expected to start back up in late 2015.


Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo spaceplane, which suffered an accident in October 2014. (Photo by Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic/Getty Images)

If space tourism ever gets carried out by a private company — rather than Russia — it will initially consist of suborbital flights that take tourists just above the 100-kilometer altitude line that's generally used to distinguish Earth's atmosphere from space. Virgin Galactic, one of the companies planning to provide these trips, says passengers will be able to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and look down at the curvature of Earth, in exchange for $250,000 or so per ticket.

But the October 2014 crash of Virgin's SpaceShipTwo, which killed one pilot, has thrown this plan into doubt. Virgin is still pressing onward, but at the very least, the accident will substantially delay commercial space tourism flights.

There are a few other companies, including XCOR Aerospace, that plan suborbital flights as well, though they're not quite as far along in testing the technology involved.

Additionally, some companies, such as SpaceX and Boeing, hope to eventually take tourists higher — all the way up into low Earth orbit. Both have mentioned plans to use the same vehicles they're developing to take NASA astronauts to the space station for tourists, though it's a long-term and uncertain idea. Eventually, they could potentially bring tourists to a private space hotel, perhaps built by Bigelow Aerospace, a company that has already launched two experimental inflatable stations into orbit.

Why does SpaceX get so much attention?

SpaceX is a particularly glitzy private space company, founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, who also founded PayPal, Tesla Motors, and other companies. In a sense, it's the Apple of private spaceflight: slick, heavily self-promoting, and beloved by a distinct brand of fanboy.

It's also made a huge amount of progress in developing private spaceflight in a very short time. In 2010, it became the first private company to successfully put a spacecraft in orbit and then return it to Earth. In 2012, it became the first to dock a spacecraft with the International Space Station, using its Dragon capsule as part of a cargo resupply mission.

dragon v2 musk

(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Elon Musk unveils the Dragon V2 in May 2014. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Its plans are ambitious. In the short term, SpaceX is continuing to run supply missions to the ISS with its Dragon capsule. Additionally, its Dragon V2 capsule is one of two spacecraft (along with Boeing's CST-100) that will serve as NASA's replacement for the Space Shuttle starting in 2017, transporting astronauts to and from the station.

It's also breaking into the lucrative satellite-launching business and attempting to build a satellite-based internet service.

In the longer term, SpaceX wants to develop fully reusable rockets and capsules — to drive down the cost of space travel — and use them for all sorts of things, potentially including travel to private space stations and Mars.

How is Boeing involved in private spaceflight?

Boeing — a nearly century-old aeronautics company that got its start building wooden seaplanes in World War I — has recently gotten heavily involved in the space industry.

Apart from designing and building components for the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, Boeing has dominated the business of launching military and other US government satellites as part of a partnership with Lockheed Martin called United Launch Alliance.

boeing cst-100

A rendering of Boeing's CST-100. (NASA)

The company is now entering the crewed spaceflight sector, with its Starliner capsule recently selected by NASA as one of two spacecraft that will replace the Space Shuttle in ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station.

Eventually, Boeing hopes to put this technology to use for space tourism as well, which is why the capsule was developed in collaboration with Bigelow Aerospace. In theory, paying guests could ride the CST to an orbiting Bigelow space station, although this is certainly a long way off.

Are there private plans to go to the moon?

There are, though most of them do not involve people.

In 2007, Google announced its Lunar XPRIZE: $20 million offered to the first group that could put a rover on the moon. The deadline was originally 2012, but it's since been extended to 2016 and the prize upped to $30 million. There are currently 16 groups working on developing spacecraft. A few of these teams have conducted test launches and plan to launch their crafts sometime during 2015, though nothing is guaranteed.

lunar x prize

A rendering of the Hakuto group's proposed lunar rover, competing for the Lunar XPRIZE. (Hakuto)

At least one of these companies — called Moon Express — also has grander ambitions: to use its rover to mine rare elements like niobium, yttrium, and dysprosium on the moon and bring them back to Earth.

There are also a few proposed missions that would involve astronauts, although they're farther from fruition. The Shackleton Energy Company wants to mine lunar ice and convert it to rocket fuel to be sold to both government and commercial customers at orbiting refueling stations. Meanwhile, the Golden Spike Company wants to put tourists on the moon by 2020.

Are there private plans to go to Mars?

Most credible plans for Mars exploration involve NASA or other governments, but some plans have been announced by private companies.

SpaceX's ambitions are broad and vague, but the company has expressed interest in developing a Mars probe and perhaps even a permanent human colony there. As part of its proposed Red Dragon mission, SpaceX would send an unmanned capsule to land on Mars, collect a soil sample, and return to Earth. The latest plans call for the Red Dragon to launch in 2022, though it's far from a certainty.

red dragon

A rendering of SpaceX's Red Dragon capsule landing on Mars. (SpaceX)

Several other groups have announced plans for Mars, but they're probably far-fetched. In 2018, the Inspiration Mars Foundation wants to launch a spacecraft containing two astronauts to fly by Mars — but the organization's lack of progress so far make this seem unlikely. Even more unlikely is the Mars One organization's goal of establishing a permanent colony on Mars in 2024, with the mission theoretically to be funded by a reality TV show about the participants.

Is anyone trying to save us from asteroids?

Yes — there's an organization called the B612 Foundation that's justifiably concerned about the remote but conceivable possibility that our species might be wiped out by an asteroid impact.

In response, it's trying to raise $450 million to launch an orbiting spacecraft that could spot potential threats much better than we're currently capable of. If it's successful, the Sentinel Mission will orbit the sun at roughly the same distance as Venus, and complement NASA's plans to launch an asteroid spotter as well.

Will asteroid mining ever actually happen?

It's tough to say. A single asteroid could theoretically contain billions of dollars' worth of metals, but some economists have calculated that it still wouldn't justify the huge startup and transportation costs. Still, people have dreamed of mining asteroids as far back as 1898, and in recent years several different entrepreneurs have proposed doing so.

Geologically, asteroid mining makes some sense: compared with Earth's crust, many asteroids are extremely rich in valuable metals such as iron, zinc, silver, lead, gold, copper, and platinum. Additionally, mining ice from asteroids could potentially enable a company to produce drinkable water, breathable oxygen, and rocket fuel in space, which could be sold to customers in orbit to help offset costs. But there are a number of hurdles that would have to be cleared for it to make economic sense.


Eros, a relatively large near-Earth asteroid. (NEAR Project, NLR, JHUAPL, Goddard SVS, NASA)

1) Finding the right asteroid. We still haven't even located all the asteroids near Earth, and for the most part we only have indirect knowledge about their inner composition. The right target would also need to be moving in a direction relatively similar to Earth, to make traveling there as easy as possible. So a company planning to mine an asteroid would probably have to spend a lot of money launching orbiting telescopes to find asteroids, and sending scouting probes to take samples and return them to us.

Planetary Resources, the company with the most detailed asteroid mining plans, would launch a series of three different spacecraft even before beginning to mine. This doesn't mean that asteroid mining won't be possible, but it does mean the upfront costs would be enormous, and it'd take a very long time.

2) Making it legal. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 — a UN treaty signed by 102 countries, including the US — bans countries from appropriating any astronomical bodies. It's unclear whether this would apply to private companies trying to mine an asteroid, and some experts suggest it wouldn't. Still, you'd have to imagine that investors would want to know this for sure before sinking millions into a mission.

3) Mining the thing. It's theoretically possible, but extracting lots of material from an asteroid millions of miles away is still something we haven't done before. Japan's Habayusa mission did collect a few tiny grains from an asteroid in 2005 and return them to Earth, but extracting material on an industrial scale is something engineers need to figure out.

For some asteroids — ones that are loosely packed clumps of metal-rich rubble, rather than solid rock — magnets might be used to gather grains of metal. Others might require scoops or drills.

4) Doing something with the material. Most experts think that, at least at first, extracting water and converting it into oxygen and rocket fuel will be most profitable. This is because carrying those substances up to the International Space Station and other objects in low Earth orbit from Earth is extremely expensive — so it might actually be cheaper to mine them from an asteroid.

Metals would most likely come into play later on, because larger quantities of them would need to be carried back to Earth to make the endeavor economical. It's possible that they too would be more valuable refined and used in orbit.

What's the point of private spaceflight?

The majority of the companies involved see space as a business opportunity. United Launch Alliance, for instance, gets paid roughly $225 million per launch by the US government to put military and scientific satellites into space. Profit is also the clear motivation behind plans to mine asteroids and ferry tourists into space. For potential customers of nascent space tourism companies, the goal is purely experiential: the thrill of a few minutes of weightlessness and the striking view of Earth from 100 kilometers up.

The US government's motivation for promoting private spaceflight is a bit different. At least publicly, the historical transfer of satellite launches and the future handoff of astronaut-shuttling responsibilities to private companies have been billed as cost-saving measures that will allow NASA to focus on pioneering new technologies and missions, such as going to Mars.

But some people involved in private spaceflight actually think private companies are better equipped to pursue ambitious space goals than the government. Elon Musk's ultimate goal in founding SpaceX was to create a self-sustaining colony on Mars, and he has said he wants humanity to become "a multiplanetary species." According to him and some other proponents of private spaceflight, private enterprise is necessary to do it.

What are the criticisms of private space flight?

1) Space tourism is just for the rich. When it comes to projects that solely involve rich people paying tons of money to briefly get themselves into space, lots of people are justifiably skeptical that they might benefit society in any meaningful way. So far, every space tourist has paid upward of $20 million for a one-week trip, and even if the price came down, it’s hard to imagine it being available to anyone but the super-rich.

2) Space tourism will be bad for the climate. Blasting rockets from Earth means burning lots of fuel and emitting lots of carbon dioxide. But the rockets that will likely be used for suborbital space tourism are especially problematic for the climate because they also emit lots of black carbon (that is, soot) at high altitudes.

This soot doesn't get evenly distributed around the world, and when it lands on light-colored regions — such as polar ice — it absorbs sunlight, accelerating melting. One study found that if there were 1,000 suborbital launches per year, it would lead to an estimated 0.2 to 1°C increase in temperatures at the poles, and increase ice melt by 5 to 15 percent. All for rich people to enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness.

3) NASA's reliance on private companies will weaken it. In handing over routine missions (like transporting cargo and astronauts to low Earth orbit), NASA intends to focus on more challenging goals. But some space advocates, including the late Neil Armstrong and Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan, have argued it simply reflects the fact that space is no longer a priority for the US government, and have worried that NASA will get left behind by other countries that are more willing to invest in space.


How screwed are Democrats in the Senate?


The dark, enthralling power of Succession

The Goods

The problem with America’s semi-rich

View all stories in The Latest

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays