The Private Spaceflight Decade: How Commercial Space Truly Soared in the 2010s
A lot has happened in the past 10 years.
Historians may look back at the 2010s as the decade in which commercial spaceflight really started taking off.
Private companies are doing a lot more in the final frontier today than they were 10 years ago, including ferrying supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), landing and reflying rockets, and manufacturing products off Earth.
Since 2010, and especially since 2013 or 2014, “it has been an enormous change — a sea change, almost,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a nonprofit trade association. “It’s mind-boggling.”
Private cargo flights galore
Let’s start with those robotic ISS resupply missions, which NASA has funded through a series of commercial cargo deals. SpaceX has flown 19 contracted missions to date with its Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket, with the first coming in October 2012. Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft and Antares rocket made their first fully operational run in January 2014 and have racked up 11 more launches since then. (Both companies suffered one cargo-mission failure; an Antares exploded on the pad in October 2014, and a Falcon 9 broke apart in flight in June 2015.)
About half of those Dragon-Falcon 9 missions have featured landings of the rocket’s first stage, showcasing one of the important trends that SpaceX pioneered in the 2010s: the recovery and reuse of orbital hardware by a private company.
SpaceX first notched a booster touchdown during an orbital flight in December 2015. Since then, the company has pulled off nearly four dozen additional landings, many of them coming on specialized ships at sea. SpaceX routinely reflies these first stages, too, often multiple times.
And the Dragon capsule is reusable, and increasingly reused, as well. For example, the two most recent SpaceX resupply missions, which launched on July 25 and Dec. 6, respectively, featured Dragon spacecraft that had already made two trips to the orbiting lab.
Such activity is key to SpaceX’s long-term vision. The company aims to slash the cost of spaceflight enough to make bold exploration feats economically feasible. Indeed, Elon Musk has repeatedly stressed that he founded SpaceX back in 2002 primarily to help achieve one particularly ambitious goal: to colonize Mars.
SpaceX has already lowered the cost of getting to space considerably. The company currently sells launches of the workhorse Falcon 9 for $62 million and the newer, more powerful Falcon Heavy for $90 million. Those rockets can loft 50,265 lbs. (22,800 kilograms) and 140,660 lbs. (63,800 kg), respectively, to low Earth orbit (LEO), according to SpaceX’s spec sheet.
That works out to about $2,720 per kg to LEO for the Falcon 9, and $1,410 per kg for the Falcon Heavy. For comparison, the cost to LEO for NASA’s now-retired space shuttle orbiters was about $54,500 per kg, according to a recent report by Harry Jones of NASA’s Ames Research Center. (SpaceX is also widely acknowledged to be considerably cheaper than its competitors in the commercial sector, but comparisons are tricky because those other companies generally don’t publish their launch prices.)
Another company, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, also began routinely landing and reflying rockets in the 2010s. Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle has performed 11 successful touchdowns to date, with the first coming in November 2015. The most recent iteration of the reusable New Shepard has flown six such missions. To date, these test flights have hauled experiments to suborbital space and back for 100 customers, Blue Origin representatives said.
Rocket Lab is yet another private launch provider that broke new ground in the past decade, pioneering dedicated missions for small satellites via its 57-foot-tall (17 meters) Electron rocket. The two-stage Electron first lifted off in May 2017 and now has 10 flights under its belt, the last nine of which have been completely successful.
During the most recent mission, which launched on Dec. 6, Rocket Lab guided the Electron’s first stage back down toward Earth in the proper orientation for recovery — a big step toward rocket reuse, which the company plans to start implementing as early as next year. But Electron rockets won’t land vertically like New Shepard and Falcon 9 first stages do; instead, Rocket Lab plans to pluck the falling boosters out of the sky with a helicopter.
Not all of the rocket action is being conducted by American companies, either. For example, Beijing-based OneSpace, which aims to give small payloads rides to suborbital space and to orbit, launched for the first time in 2018.
Lots going on
The variety and capabilities of the hardware carried by such rockets have surged over the past decade as well.
For example, the 2010s saw the dawn of the off-Earth-manufacturing era. That milestone occurred in September 2014, when a 3D printer built by California-based startup Made In Space rode to the ISS (aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule for good measure).
Since then, Made In Space has launched a handful of other machines to the orbiting lab, including equipment that manufactures the high-value optical fiber ZBLAN.
The company is also developing in-space assembly technology known as Archinaut, which Made In Space envisions will help repair, upgrade and refuel satellites in orbit and build entirely new structures as well. This past July, NASA awarded the company nearly $74 million to give Archinaut an orbital test, which could come as early as 2022.
Advances by the private space sector have also made it much easier to see what’s happening here on Earth. For instance, the San Francisco-based company Planet first launched its sharp-eyed Dove Earth-observation satellites to orbit in 2013, and several hundred have been lofted to date.
These tiny spacecraft, each of which is about the size of a loaf of bread, capture imagery for use by a wide variety of customers. Some of these photos have considerable national security utility; Doves have helped analysts keep tabs on the North Korean and Iranian rocket and missile programs, for instance.
Communications tech also leaped ahead in the 2010s, Stallmer said, citing the launch of more-capable broadband satellites. And much bigger things are to come in this respect. SpaceX launched its first 120 Starlink spacecraft in 2019 and eventually aims to loft up to 12,000 of these satellites (including another 60 before the year is out). Several other companies, such as OneWeb and Amazon, have similar goals. (These planned megaconstellations have come with some controversy, however. Astronomers have expressed concerns about how Starlink and its ilk will affect their observations, and other folks in the space community worry about the space-junk hazard such craft pose.)
The 2010s also saw the increased commercialization of the ISS. For example, Texas-based NanoRacks, which helps customers get their gear up and running on the station, got its first foothold on the orbiting lab in 2010.
NASA has been encouraging this trend, as well as increased private activity in deep space. In the past year or two, for example, the American space agency has started reserving space on commercial lunar landers.
The delivery of scientific experiments and technology demonstrations to the moon by these private robotic craft will help NASA put boots on the lunar surface by 2024 and establish a sustainable human presence on and around Earth’s nearest neighbor by the end of the 2020s, agency officials have said. Indeed, NASA even wants the private sector to help get those astronauts to and from the lunar surface.
This is just a sampling of the past decade’s advances, of course; there are far too many to detail in a single story.
Several factors are driving such progress, Stallmer said. One of the biggest catalysts is the drop in the cost to access space.
“If people have to spend 50% less on launching a payload, it enables them to open a larger market on development of what they can do and build on the ground,” Stallmer told Space.com.
And what they can build on the ground is increasingly efficient and capable, given the ever-increasing miniaturization of electronics that’s exemplified by Planet’s flock of Doves. It also helps that those two sides — launch and payload — have been acting in increasing synergy in recent years, Stallmer said, noting a better alignment of supply and demand in the space sector.
Space companies also found it increasingly easy to access private capital throughout the 2010s, Stallmer said. The numbers back this up: According to the venture capital company Space Angels, $24.6 billion has been invested in the commercial space sector since 2009 — and $5 billion of that has been pumped in just in the first three quarters of 2019.
Investors’ pockets have been opened, at least in part, by the successes notched throughout the decade by companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic (which flew landmark crewed test flights to suborbital space in December 2018 and February 2019). And these high-profile pioneers have pushed the industry forward in other ways as well, Stallmer said.
Such companies have inspired people to start their own space outfits and also seeded them with talent. For instance, up-and-coming launch provider Relativity Space, which recently announced that it had raised $140 million from investors in its latest funding round, was founded in 2015 by Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone — alums of Blue Origin and SpaceX, respectively.
Not so fast
But it hasn’t all been wine and roses for private spaceflight in the 2010s. Milestones have been much harder to come by in a particularly high-profile field: human spaceflight.
Consider Virgin Galactic, which aims to fly paying customers to and from suborbital space aboard its six-passenger spaceliner, SpaceShipTwo. The company is nearly ready to start doing so, but the timeline has shifted considerably to the right over the years. Back in 2004, after all, Richard Branson predicted that his newly founded company would begin commercial space-tourism operations by 2007.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard is designed to carry people as well, but it doesn’t yet have any crewed flights under its belt, though that seems likely to change soon. (It’s tough to say much about New Shepard timeline shifts, because Blue Origin has mostly avoided publicly announcing target dates throughout its 19-year history.)
Then there are the crew-carrying orbital vehicles. In 2010, NASA began encouraging the development of these spacecraft via the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, to fill the shoes of the soon-to-be-retired space shuttle fleet. In September 2014, Boeing and SpaceX emerged as the big winners of this competition, each scoring multibillion-dollar contracts to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the ISS.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner are on target to start this taxi service soon, perhaps in 2020. But again, that’s later than the primary stakeholders had hoped. When NASA officials announced the SpaceX and Boeing deals in September 2014, for example, they said they hoped at least one of the two capsules would be up and running by 2017.
Part of the responsibility for these delays rests with the U.S. Congress, which did not fund the Commercial Crew Program adequately in its early years, said space policy expert John Logsdon, a professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C.
But the wait also reinforces a simple and sobering reality about exploration: “Human spaceflight is hard,” Logsdon told Space.com.
Numerous examples make this point. For example, Virgin Galactic’s progress has been slowed by two fatal accidents, one on the ground in 2007 at the facilities of design and manufacturing partner Scaled Composites and another in 2014, during a rocket-powered test flight of the first SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Enterprise. And the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule that performed a historic uncrewed demonstration flight to the ISS in March no longer exists; it was destroyed a month later during a ground-test accident, setting SpaceX back some.
And just today (Dec. 20), Boeing’s Starliner experienced problems during its first orbital mission, an uncrewed test flight that was supposed to go to the ISS. An error with the capsule’s timing system prevented that rendezvous, and Starliner is now scheduled to come back down to Earth on Sunday morning (Dec. 22) without achieving a number of major test-flight goals.
But these companies are working through such issues, and exciting things may well be just over the horizon. Seeing Crew Dragon, Starliner, SpaceShipTwo and New Shepard come fully online will be thrilling enough. But shortly thereafter, a private spaceship could carry people to deep space for the first time. After all, SpaceX is working on a 100-passenger, Mars-colonizing craft called Starship, and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has already booked a flight around the moon with a target launch date of 2023.
“The 2010s were ‘getting ready,’ and we’re close to ready,” Logsdon said about private human spaceflight. “Hopefully, 2020 will see ‘getting started.'”