SpaceX and The Rise of the Commercial Space Sector

Future of Industry

On the 30th of May, SpaceX, Elon Musk’s aerospace company, made history. Its Falcon 9 rocket sent two NASA astronauts – Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley – into space from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.  It was a historic moment, for more reasons than one. It was the first time that NASA sent its astronauts in a private rocket, and for SpaceX it was the first such mission. But the flight did more than create history – it marked the beginning of new era in the privatization of space. In the decades to come we will see many more players enter this space (pun intended), now commonly known as the billionaires’ playground.

While SpaceX, with its text-book startup-success story, may have beaten the others right now, the truth is that it has competition. Some big names are set to enter the industry – and these are your regular struggling start-ups vying for the next big thing. These are your Bezos and Bransons of the world, who, much like Musk want a piece of the commercial space pie. Not to forget Boeing, an aerospace giant that (for one), built the first stage of NASA’s rocket, Saturn V that launched the Apollo moon missions.  So yes, the race is hotting up and it’s safe to say that the age of human spaceflight is upon us. If Elon Musk has his way (and he mostly does), we’ll be riding to Mars soon.

Who all are in the race? And how big are they?

First, of course, is SpaceX

Elon Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) in 2002 with the objective of facilitating the colonization of other planets by reducing the cost of transportation into space. Currently working on a range of Human Space Flight Missions, the company is primarily involved in designing, manufacturing and launching advanced rockets and spacecrafts. These include the Falcon Heavy, Falcon 9, and Starship rockets as well as SpaceX Dragon and Dragon V2 spacecrafts, among others.

Company Worth: Estimated at more than $20 billion

Virgin Galactic

Owned by Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic was launched in 2004. It is part of the Virgin Group, along with Virgin Atlantic (a commercial international airline). It is a vertically integrated aerospace company that is in the process of developing a spaceline to take humans on suborbital journeys and facilitate further research. Their emphasis remains on high levels of safety, and delivering an unparalleled consumer experience. Currently, it boasts SpaceShipTwo, a suborbital aircraft along with its carrier aircraft: WhiteKnightTwo.

Company Worth: $3.5 billion (market capitalization)

Blue Origin

This Jeff Bezos enterprise was founded in 2000 with the aim of making space tourism less costly and more reliable—step-by-step. Like others in the industry, they use vertical take off architecture that enables the reuse of their launching devices. Their rocket and spaceflight fleet includes the suborbital launch vehicle New Shepard, the orbital rocket New Glenn, and Blue Moon which carries payloads straight to the moon. The company right now is fully funded by Bezos.

United Launch Alliance

A joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, ULA was founded in 2006. The company has already delivered over hundred satellites to orbit. These satellites have proved critical in the areas of defence (to assist troops), meteorology, GPS navigation and further space research. The company aims to deliver a blend of latest technology at the lowest possible costs. The Delta rocket (launched in 1960), has evolved into the Delta IV, and can ferry medium and heavy payloads to space. Over the past year, their revenues exceeded $500 million.

A whole new world…

The next few decades are expected to see not only the launch of private astronauts, but also private space stations, which are being seriously considered by NASA. The American space agency does not seem to have the will, or the funds, to build another space station once the ISS reaches the end of its working life.

As for commercial space flights, space travel does not (yet) seem deterred by COVID. Space X is gearing up to send tourists as early as next year into space. And Richard Branson’s spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic, just made a deal with NASA to develop a program that will promote private missions to the International Space Station. It intends to sell tickets for private rides to space.

COVID notwithstanding, there seems to be no stopping the space age. And if Musk is to be believed, we’ll be colonizing Mars soon (and Amazon will probably be the first to deliver its brown packets there!). It’s going to be an exciting space to watch.

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