10 Commercial Space Companies to Watch

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With the end of the space shuttle era, NASA is headed toward lean fiscal times, with funding projected to be less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget for the foreseeable future. While public space missions are on the decline, many new commercial space companies have sprung up in the past few years, some with an eye toward tourism, others looking to launch satellites or carry supplies to the International Space Station. It’s ironic that in a time when many traditional corporations are downsizing, many space-oriented businesses are booming. Here are 10 such space companies worth watching.

10. XCOR

XCOR's Lynx spacecraft will take off and land like an airplane.

Artist’s conception of XCOR suborbital vehicle; XCOR

XCOR Aerospace plans to enter the modern space race with its Lynx suborbital vehicle, which is about the size of a small plane. That’s an apt comparison, as XCOR CEO Jeff Greason bills the Lynx as the first suborbital craft that can take off and land on a runway, like a plane. Testing of the Lynx’s rocket engines has been underway in the Mojave Desert, and the company expects to begin test flights in late 2012. Later Mark II and Mark III variants of the Lynx spacecraft will sport an external payload pod, enabling it to deploy small satellites into low Earth orbit.


9. Starchaser Industries

The NOVA 1 is the largest rocket ever launched from Great Britain.

Nova/Starchaser 4 rocket; Starchaser

Founded in 1992, Starchaser Industries is a European-based company that has been working on commercial space access and space tourism. Headed by Steve Bennett, Starchaser Industries set the record for the largest rocket launched from the UK with NOVA 1 in 2001. Starchaser Industries has since set up shop at Spaceport America near Las Cruces, New Mexico, and is slated to perform the first test launch of its NOVA 2 rocket in late 2012. Its manned future projects include a 3-seat reusable capsule known as Thunderstar, and design of an 8-seat suborbital space plane.


8. Armadillo Aerospace

Armadillo Aerospace won a contest for best lunar landing simulation.

Testing of Armadillo Aerospace’s lunar lander; Armadillo Aerospace.

Founded in 2000, Mesquite, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace placed first in the Level 1 Lunar Lander Challenge in 2008, a NASA-sponsored contest in which competitors had to create a spacecraft that could simulate moon-landing capability. That success earned the company a $350,000 prize. Armadillo Aerospace is currently working to develop vertical takeoff and landing systems as well as orbital and suborbital spacecraft.


7. 4 Frontiers Corporation

4 Frontiers has set a goal of building a settlement on Mars.

Artist’s conception of Star Lab; 4 Frontiers.

The name of this innovative space startup company says it all about its future ambitions, with the 4 Frontiers referring to the Earth, Mars, Moon and asteroids. The company’s ultimate goal is a settlement on Mars. For the time being, the company located on the Florida Space Coast plans to launch a suborbital vehicle known as Star Lab with cylindrical cross-sections capable of carrying student and scientific payloads into space. During its suborbital flight, the experiments will be exposed to micro-gravity environments up to 3 1/2 minutes before being retrieved in the Atlantic Ocean. Look for a first launch in September 2012. And with a one-third refund from the Florida Space Grant for all commercial launches based from the state, placing a payload in space with 4 Frontiers will start at a very reasonable $4,000.


6. ATK

ATK played an integral role with the space shuttle program.

ATK’s Liberty Launch Vehicle; ATK

Headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, Alliant Techsystems Inc. is hardly a newcomer to spaceflight — the company designed the reusable solid-rocket boosters for the space shuttle program during its 30-plus-year life span. ATK also designed the stage 1 booster for the only mission of the scrubbed Constellation Program to leave the pad, the Ares X-1 in 2009. ATK is also another competitor working to design systems for NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crewed Vehicle, and is designing its own Liberty Launch Vehicle to carry supplies to the International Space Station. ATK says the Liberty can deliver a 22-ton payload into low Earth orbit, and may begin test flights in 2015. To date, ATK has also launched micro-satellites, and designed technologies for the Mars Phoenix lander.


5. Orbital Sciences Corporation

Orbital Sciences Corp. plans to launch its Cygnus spacecraft in 2012.

Orbital Sciences’s Minotaur I ORS-1 launch; Courtesy of Orbital Sciences Corp.

Based in Dulles, Virginia, the defense contractor plans to launch its ambitious Cygnus cargo spacecraft as a proof of concept in summer 2012. The Cygnus will eventually be used to carry supplies to the International Space Station. Orbital is also designing the launch abort system for NASA’s next generation of manned spacecraft, the Orion capsule. In the meantime, Orbital’s Minotaur I continues as a workhorse; as of April 2012, the rocket had launched 32 satellites into orbit with a 100 percent success rate.


4. Blue Origin

Blue Origin's New Shephard spacecraft will take off and land vertically.

Artist’s rendering of Blue Origin spacecraft; Fair Use

The brainchild of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin is currently designing the New Shepard vehicle to hoist scientific and private payloads into space. New Shepard, which will take off and land vertically, will be used for short suborbital flights. The system will feature a reusable first-stage booster, which will dramatically reduce the cost per launch. Incidentally, Bezos recently announced he will attempt to recover from the Atlantic Ocean arguably the most famous rocket booster in history, the large F1 stage of the Saturn V rocket that sent Apollo 11 to the Moon in 1969.


3. Bigelow Aerospace

Bigelow Aerospace aims to put inflatable space stations in orbit.

Model of Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable space station; NASA/Bill Ingalls

Based near Las Vegas, Bigelow Aerospace has one of the most ambitious plans yet for a private space corporation. Specifically, the company plans to build inflatable habitats as a next generation of commercial space stations or “orbiting hotels” in low Earth orbit. Why build inflatable habitats? Not only are they much cheaper to launch into orbit, but they may be more durable as well, constructed of several different materials, including Vectran, a material tougher than Kevlar. Bigelow has already launched small demonstration modules named Genesis I and II in 2006 and 2007. Company CEO Robert Bigelow — who founded the Budget Suites of America hotel chain — hopes to have the first full-scale 45 x 22 foot model capable of housing a crew of six in space by 2015. However, in late 2011, Bigelow laid off roughly 40 of its 90 employees, due to concerns that while its plans are on schedule, there may be no way to transport astronauts to and from its space station.


2. Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic plans to offer space tourism spots for $200,000 each.

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise; Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg

Famed entrepreneur Richard Branson’s space venture, Virgin Galactic, is probably the best-known commercial space company. The company is offering “space tourists” the chance to take short, suborbital flights aboard the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo beginning in 2013. The cost: $200,000 per passenger. If you plan on going, get in line — as of early 2012, more than 400 people have made at least a $20,000 deposit to fly. The spacecraft will be built by the SpaceShip Company, a joint venture between Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites (the company founded by Burt Rutan that in 2004 won a $10 million prize for building the first private spacecraft demonstrating a reusable capability). To illustrate the difficulties these commercial space companies face, Virgin Galactic originally intended to begin the space tourism flights in 2008, a deadline that was subsequently revised to 2010, then 2012, and now 2013. Before commercial operations can begin, further testing is needed, and Virgin must work out some complex regulatory agreements with the Federal Aviation Administration.


1. Space X

Space X may become the first commercial space company to dock a spacecraft with the International Space Station.

Artist’s conception of Dragon capsule approaching the International Space Station; NASA

Founded by PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk, Space X will once again break new ground with the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket at the end of April 2012. This will deploy the unmanned Dragon capsule to rendezvous and possibly dock with the International Space Station, the first private spacecraft to do so. In addition to eventual manned versions of the Dragon, Space X has set a 2013 timetable to launch its enormous Falcon Heavy rocket, which will be capable of lifting more than twice the payload capacity of the space shuttle into low Earth orbit.

Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.