Th e Commercialization o f s pace: How Private Companies are Leading the Space Race

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The Commercialization of Space: How Private Companies are Leading the Space Race

Jeff A. Redland

Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA

Abstract— Due to extreme costs and the high amount of technical skills required, space travel and exploration has been a field almost entirely dominated by national funded agencies. Beginning with the United States and Russia, and more recently developing in countries such as China, North Korea and Iran, government sponsored space agencies are becoming increasingly common and have more developed capabilities then ever before. Though many can claim to have foreseen this natural progression of governmental space proliferation, few may have guessed at the rapid increase and amazing potential of the private space industry. New technologies are allowing for more efficient, more powerful, and more viable space fairing vehicles. By decreasing costs of launches with reusable vehicles and opening up services for commercial purposes, private space industries are allowing a new era of extraterrestrial opportunities.
KeywordsCommercialization, Remotely operated vehicles, Rockets, Space technology, Space Vehicles

  1. Introduction

With an average cost of $450 million per launch and an early estimated cargo weight to cost ratio of 1400 USD/kg, the NASA's Space Transportation System; or more commonly, Space Shuttle Program; provided one of the most cost effective space delivery vehicles of its day [1], [2]. Funded by the United States government, the space shuttles were able to transfer crew and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) and bring numerous satellites into low Earth orbit. However, for all of its benefits, the space shuttle program faced many of the same issues which nearly all space programs encounter. Repair and replacement costs, government budget cuts, and at times terrible accidents led to the eventual retirement of the NASA's space shuttles with the final launch on July 2011.

Yet, as we see one of the most influential and amazing programs in aerospace history fade into the past, new developments in space vehicle technologies are presenting us with an ever increasing horizon of opportunities. A new generation of space entrepreneurs is stepping up to take in the slack as government agencies are giving way. Companies such as Orbital Sciences Corperation, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), and Reaction Engines Limited (REL) have been developing new tech and methods allowing for cheaper and more efficient forms of space transportation.

  1. Technologies

With so many barriers to space exploration and transportation, engineers have been designing increasingly sophisticated space vehicles. Progress in other fields of science and engineering can be seen coming together in the new space industry. Innovations such as automated spacecraft, modular rocket designs, vertical take-off and landing vehicles, and single stage to orbit vehicles are increasing aerospace capabilities and efficiency.

  1. Automated Spacecraft

In answer to one of the main concerns of aerospace programs, future space vehicles are becoming ever more automated. Why should astronauts risk their lives strapped to a rockets with up to 30.1 meganewtons of thrust, such as the US space shuttles, when multiple computers running flight software can do the job more effectively [3]? Take for example SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule, seen docking with the ISS in Fig. 1, that is controlled by multiple redundant flight computers that check each other for fault [4]. Similarly, the British private company REL plans to have their space plane SKYLON operated autonomously by on board computers [5]. Not only will this software provide more efficient and predictable pilots, but the removal of an astronaut crew will allow for more cargo and fuel space.
ig 1. Picture taken from the International Space Station showing the orbital docking capability of SpaceX's uncrewed Dragon capsule [6]

  1. Modular Designs

Along with more advanced software and computer design, improvements in rocket and space craft hull designs are cutting the costs of launches. By creating the components of rockets in a modular fashion, SpaceX is mixing rocket science with Legos. Instead of creating each rocket stage individually--all with different fuels, rocket engines, and software--space vehicles like the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy make use of a common Merlin engine in all transfer stages. Building on the virtues of simplicity, the Falcon Heavy is designed with its first stage composed of three Falcon 9 engine cores combining the power of 27 Merlin engines together generating nearly 18 meganewtons of thrust at lift off [7]. This commonality in part design allows for faster and cheaper production of launch vehicles. The modular design of the SpaceX Dragon capsule, REL's SKYLON cargo compartment, and Orbital Science's Cygnus capsule allow for a diversity in transportation capabilities. From satellites, to astronauts and their necessities, modular cargo capsules are the future of space transportation.

  1. Vertical Take-off and Landing

Another stride in launch vehicle streamlining is the development of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles. Instead of wasting millions of dollars per lunch on “expendable” boosters and rockets, engineers are looking to develop VTOL rockets that are capable of injecting cargo into low Earth orbit and returning safely on their own power. Though NASA was able to successfully land the Apollo Lunar Module VTOL on the moon, Earth has a considerably stronger gravitational field, which requires more powerful engines and a larger reserve of fuel for a successful vertical re-entry. Not discouraged by these limitations, some companies have been met with success on initial VTOL tests. SpaceX's Grasshopper v1.0, based on the Falcon 9, has been able to rise to an altitude of 744 m and land safely back on its launch pad, all under autonomous control [8]. Though this is a long shot from orbit, success in testing is sure to lead to future innovation.

  1. Single Stage to Orbit

Another answer to wasted boosters and rocket stages is the single stage to orbit (SSTO) space plane. Much like the US Space Shuttle Program, future space planes will take advantage of gliding on atmospheric re-entry, but will complement this with advances in engine technology which will allow for take off on a runway without the need of separate rocket engines. REL's innovative SKYLON space plane design is a prominent contender for future SSTO space vehicles. By harnessing the efficient and elegant design of the Synergistic Air-breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE), seen in Fig. 2, SKYLON will act much like a conventional jet in low atmosphere and switch to rocket propulsion when the atmosphere thins out [9].
ig. 2 A cut away of the SABRE engine showing heat exchangers, piping, and exhaust nozzles [10]

Previously limited by the thermal energy generated by Mach 5 speeds, innovative liquid nitrogen pre-cooler heat exchangers transfer heat energy from the heating air into the liquid fuel, increasing fuel economy and allowing for higher speeds. After attaining sufficient velocity, SKYLON switches to liquid oxygen fuel and the SABRE engines begin to operate as rockets. This SSTO space plane, which combines re-usability and efficient engine design, is projected to lower cost per kilogram of payload from 25000 USD/kg to a more manageable 1000 USD/kg [11].

  1. Implications

These new avenues of space transportation are encouraging other sectors to get involved in the space industry. From the furthest reaches of our solar system to back on Earth, private space companies are making great impacts on the future.

  1. Extraterrestrial Mining

Private businesses like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries plan to make an early claim at the vast riches contained in space. Using autonomous space craft like the one shown in Fig. 3, Deep Space Industries plans on capturing asteroids to bring back to Earth. Considering that NASA is paying $1 billion for a mission that may bring back 2 kg of asteroid materials in 2021 and collectors pay as much as $1 million per kg for rare meteorites, the investments of these companies may not be that wild after all [12].
ig 3. Rendering of Deep Space Industries asteroid harvesting Dragonfly spacecraft design [12]

  1. Spin Off

Not only will these advances impact space development, but the possibility of extremely fast commercial aircraft is also in the making. Using a variant of the SABRE engine called the Scimitar, REL is working with the European Long-Term Advanced Propulsion Concepts and Technologies (LAPCAT) project to develop super-sonic commercial aircraft. Using the same liquid nitrogen heat exchanger designed for the SABRE, the Scimitar engine is projected to allow airliners to cruise at Mach 5 speeds. The LAPCAT A2, which will use this engine design, will allow for a 2 to 4 hour flight from Brussels to Sydney; a flight that usually takes 22 hours [13].

  1. Conclusions

These great innovators are changing the way we think about space. By opening up opportunities for cheaper and safer space exploration and transportation we will hopefully see a new surge in extraterrestrial investments. Private companies are putting in the work and demonstrating much potential in creating a commercial space industry.

If progress continues at current rates, we can expect natural business practices to take place. Developing competition in the privatized space market will lead to funding for advanced aerospace technologies and reduced cost of launching cargo into orbit. In the long run we will see more manned missions beyond Earth orbit to other bodies such as Earth's moon and Mars. The possibilities of asteroid harvesting and space colonization are goals yet to be realized but before long we will be looking for real estate and mineral rights throughout the solar system.


  1. Jeanne Ryba. (2013) NASA website. [Onlline]. Available:

  2. Comptroller General. (1972) "Report to the Congress: Cost-Benefit Analylsis Used in Support of the Space Shuttle Program" United States General Accounting Office.

  3. Space Shuttle Propulsion Systems, p. 153. NASA, June 26, 1990.

  4. Amy Svitak, (2012). “Dragon's “Radiation-Tolerant” Design”. Aviation Week.

  5. Richard Varvill, Alan Bond. “The SKYLON Spaceplane”. JBIS, Vol. 57, pp.22-32, 2004.

  6. (2013) Space Exploration Technologies website. [Online]. Available:

  7. (2013) Space Exploration Technologies website. [Online]. Available:

  8. Irene Klotz. (2013). “SpaceX Retires Grasshopper, New Test Rig To Fly in December” .Space News.


  10. (2012) Reaction Engines Limited website. [Online]. Available:

  11. (2012) Reaction Engines Limited website. [Online]. Available:

  12. (2012) Deep Space Industries Inc. website. [Onlline]. Available:

  13. (2012) Deep Space Industries Inc. website. [Onlline]. Available:

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