Commercial Space Activities
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NASA's Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo Programs
Other Commercial Space Concepts (including Asteroid Mining)
Defining "Commercial" Space Activities
The government plays a major role in commercial space activities in many ways, from establishing regulatory policy, to creating policies that direct government agencies to purchase services from companies, to contracting for hardware. For example, the government signed contracts for guaranteed data buys from two commercial remote sensing satellite companies, GeoEye and DigitalGlobe, which enabled them to raise the capital needed to build and launch the satellites. In 2012, however, the government decided it could not support both companies and the result was that the two merged. DigitalGlobe is the survivor.
U.S. commercial space policy has been part of national space policy for decades and today is defined by President Barack Obama's 2010 National Space Policy, which supersedes President George W. Bush's 2006 National Space Policy.
On November 21, 2013, the Obama Administration released an updated National Space Transportation Policy and an associated fact sheet.
For information on laws that affect commercial space policy, including the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, see our Space Law section.
Commercial Crew. President Obama proposed a dramatic change to the U.S. human spaceflight program in his FY2011 budget request to Congress, released February 1, 2010. He proposed relying on the commercial sector instead of NASA to build and operate systems to take people to and from low Earth orbit (LEO). That includes taking NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). He requested $6 billion over 5 years (FY2011-2015) in NASA's budget to subsidize companies to develop "commercial crew" launch vehicles and spacecraft for LEO missions. He also wanted to cancel the Constellation program, begun under President George W. Bush, for NASA to build new launch vehicles (Ares I and V) and a spacecraft (Orion) to take astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars, as well as to and from ISS. Instead, President Obama proposed that the United States rely on the commercial sector to build new crew space transportation systems for use in LEO, which would free NASA to focus on developing technologies that could someday be used to take astronauts to more challenging destinations beyond LEO. He wanted NASA to spend several years investing in "game-changing" technologies before deciding on what systems to build.
The lack of a specific destination and timetable for these "beyond-LEO" human spaceflight missions made his proposal especially unpopular and on April 15, 2010, he elaborated on his plans in a speech at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. At that time he made clear that he saw no need for U.S. astronauts to return to the Moon, but landing people on Mars remained the eventual goal, and he said he expected that to happen in his lifetime. Meanwhile, he wanted NASA to focus on sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as his initial beyond-LEO destination, and send them to orbit (but not land on) Mars in the 2030s.
The proposal was very controversial and vigorously debated in Congress. The 2010 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267), signed into law in October 2010, is a compromise wherein NASA is directed to develop its own crew space transportation system -- the Space Launch System (SLS) and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) -- as well as fund the commercial crew concept, but at a lower funding level. The law requires that the SLS/MPCV system also be able to function as a backup for commercial crew in case those systems do not materialize or if they fail. NASA selected the Orion spacecraft that was being developed in the Constellation program as the MPCV, so the system now is usually referred to as SLS/Orion.
President Obama's FY2012 budget request for NASA, released in February 2011, was similarly controversial because the congressional committees that oversee NASA believed that it contravened the compromise reached in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. NASA requested more money than was authorized for commercial crew and less money than was authorized for SLS/MPCV.
Meanwhile, with the termination of the space shuttle program in 2011, NASA no longer can launch astronauts to the ISS. How long this "gap" between the end of the shuttle program and the availability of commercial crew services will last is unclear, but NASA hopes the U.S. commercial crew systems will be operational in 2017 or 2018. NASA now purchases crew transportation services to and from ISS from Russia at a cost of approximately $450 million per year.
Congress and the White House continue to have tense relationships over the commercial crew initiative, although with the general success of commercial cargo missions (see below), those relationships are easing. However, for FY2011, FY2012, and FY2013, Congress provided sharply less funding than the Administration requested. The request for FY2013 was $830 million, for example, but Congress approved only $525 million. The request for FY2014 was $821 million and Congress approved $696 million. Though it was $125 million less than the request, it was more than the agency received in the past and the percentage cut was less, leaving many commercial crew advocates happy with the result. The request for FY2015 was $848 million and in a sign of continued thawing of relationships, Congress approved $805 million. The request for FY2016 was $1.244 billion and Congress appropriated that amount. FY2016 is the peak funding year for commercial crew and for FY2017, the request of $1.185 billion begins the downward trajectory.
Congress has made clear every year that funding for the NASA-developed SLS and Orion should have higher priority than commercial crew, however.
NASA initially awarded contracts to five companies for Crew Transportation Concepts and Technology Demonstration, or CCDEV (commercial crew development) in February 2010: Blue Origin, Boeing, Paragon Space Development Corp., Sierra Nevada Corp., and United Launch Alliance. Another round of winners of the CCDEV2 competition were announced in April 2011: Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX. Those contracts were awarded as Space Act Agreements (SAAs) where NASA can pay companies for meeting agreed-upon milestones, but has little oversight or insight into what the companies are doing. NASA planned to adopt traditional procurement methods under the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) for the next phase of commercial crew development -- specifically, fixed price contracts -- but changed course in December 2011 because of budget uncertainties in future years that it concluded made fixed price contracts unrealistic.
The CCDEV program transitioned into the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) program for the commercial companies to develop an integrated crew transportation system (spacecraft, launch vehicle, and ground systems). In August 2012, NASA selected "2 1/2" proposals, meaning it fully funded two companies (SpaceX and Boeing) and partially funded a third (Sierra Nevada Corporation, or SNC). SpaceX plans to use its Falcon 9 rocket for commercial crew as it does for the commercial cargo program and a crew-capable version of its Dragon capsule, dubbed "Crew Dragon." Boeing is developing a capsule also, called CST-100 Starliner. SNC's design, Dream Chaser, is a winged vehicle that resembles a small version of the space shuttle and, in fact, is based on a NASA design (HL-20) for an ISS crew rescue vehicle that the agency cancelled in the 1990s. Boeing and SNC plan to use Atlas V rockets built by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch CST-100 Starliner and Dream Chaser.
On September 16, 2014, NASA made awards under the final phase of the commercial crew development program, Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP). It chose Boeing and SpaceX, with Boeing receiving $4.2 billion and SpaceX receiving $2.6 billion. Sierra Nevada filed a protest of the awards on September 26 with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) saying there were "serious questions and inconsistencies in the procurement process." Consequently, NASA issued a stop-work order to Boeing and SpaceX for the CCtCAP contracts, but later rescinded it. Sierra Nevada filed a lawsuit against the government for that decision, but a judge verbally indicated that she would not overturn it. GAO denied Sierra Nevada's protest.
Estimates vary as to when Boeing and SpaceX's commercial crew systems will be ready for operations. NASA currently is planning on 2017 or 2018. At a September 2012 congressional hearing, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier conceded that the government is paying 80-90 percent of the costs for the development of these "commercial" systems.
Commercial Cargo. Before the Obama "commercial crew" proposal was announced, NASA already had initiated a "commercial cargo" program to rely on the commercial sector to take cargo to ISS. Called COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services), it was needed because the Bush Administration decided to terminate the space shuttle program once ISS construction was completed. Originally the shuttle was intended to take both crews and cargo to ISS throughout its lifetime. Instead, the last space shuttle mission took place in July 2011, while the Obama Administration wants to keep the ISS operating at least until 2024. Two companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. (now Orbital ATK), were awarded Space Act Agreements to develop spacecraft and rockets to take cargo to the ISS beginning in 2011.
NASA purchases the cargo services from SpaceX and Orbital under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. NASA initially signed contracts with each company to launch 20 tons of cargo to the ISS through the end of 2016. SpaceX planned to accomplish that with 12 flights, while Orbital Sciences would do it with eight (but see below). Contracts with both companies were later extended adding more flights to cover through 2018.
SpaceX launches from Cape Canaveral, FL. The Dragon spacecraft returns to Earth and splashes down in the Pacific Ocean off of California. Dragon is the only cargo spacecraft that services ISS capable of returning cargo to Earth. All the others -- Russia's Progress, Europe's ATV (now discontinued), Japan's HTV and Orbital ATK's Cygnus -- are not designed to survive reentry and burn up in the atmosphere. They therefore are used for trash disposal - a less glamorous, but still critical task -- and may also be used for experiments between the time they depart the ISS and reenter, which can be hours, days or weeks depending on the mission.
Orbital ATK typically uses its Antares rocket to launch Cygnus cargo spacecraft to ISS from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, VA. MARS is located at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, but MARS itself is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and operated by the Virginia Commonwealth Space Flight Authority.
SpaceX conducted its test flight of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft to the ISS in May 2012. The first SpaceX operational CRS flight took place in October 2012 and five more were successfully conducted through the spring of 2015. The seventh flight, however, failed 139 seconds after launch. The Falcon 9/Dragon combination returned to flight in April 2016 with the SpaceX CRS-8 (SpX-8) mission.
Orbital ATK (the result of a February 2015 merger between Orbital Sciences Corporation and ATK) conducted its test flight of Antares/Cygnus to the ISS in October 2013. The first operational flight (Orb-1) was launched in January 2014 and Orb-2 in July 2014. On October 28, 2014, the third mission, Orb-3, failed 15 seconds after liftoff, destroying the rocket and Cygnus, and damaging the MARS facility and surrounding area, though not as badly as first feared. Orbital quickly announced a recovery plan under which it consolidated its remaining cargo requirements under the original contract into four rather than five more launches using an upgraded version of Cygnus that can accommodate more cargo per flight. The failure was traced to the engine, a Russian NK-33 built four decades earlier, refurbished by Aerojet and redesignated AJ-26. Orbital ATK decided to replace the NK-33/AJ26 engines entirely and use new Russian RD-181 engines for Antares instead. While waiting for the retrofit, Orbital ATK purchased launch services from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for Atlas V launches of Cygnus to meet its contractual commitments to NASA. Two Cygnus spacecraft were launched by Atlas Vs in December 2015 and March 2016. Orbital ATK hopes to return Antares to service from Wallops on the next cargo mission in August 2016.
NASA awarded a second round of commercial cargo launches (CRS2) in January 2016. SpaceX and Orbital ATK each won a minimum of six launches each and Sierra Nevada was also awarded a minimum of six launches using an automated version of its Dream Chaser spacecraft.
Are Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo Really Commercial?
Two important points are that commercial cargo was a Bush Administration initiative and well underway by the time President Obama took office, and that although the names "commercial cargo" and "commercial crew" imply that the systems are being built at the expense of the private sector, the companies are supported by taxpayer dollars. NASA spent about $800 million on the COTS commercial cargo program for system development (services are paid for separately). The CCtCAP awards are for a total of $6.8 billion of taxpayer money. How much the companies themselves are investing is proprietary information. The government will be a major customer for the services the companies offer, providing more funds.
It might be more accurate to refer to these endeavors as public-private partnerships than "commercial."
OTHER COMMERCIAL SUBORBITAL AND ORBITAL VEHICLES, ROCKET ENGINES, AND MODULES
Richard Branson's Virgin Group created a company, Virgin Galactic, to take anyone with the requisite funds (approximately $250,000) on such suborbital flights using SpaceShipTwo (SS2), which is still in development. The plan had been to build five SS2 vehicles. During a test flight on October 31, 2014, the only existing SS2 vehicle was destroyed in an accident that killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injured pilot Peter Siebold. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the accident. Scaled Composites, which is now part of Northrop Grumman, was in charge of building SS2 and the two pilots were Scaled employees. It is not clear when the second SS2 craft will be ready for flight or when customers will get their chance to fly. The company received a license from the FAA on July 29, 2016 to conduct test flights of the second SS2 vehicle, but it does not allow passengers to be carried on those flights. Virgin Galactic is also building a rocket to launch small satellites to orbit, LauncherOne.
Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, is developing a new, reusable, suborbital rocket, New Shepard. Blue Origin provides very little information about its activities, but in December 2015 announced that a day earlier it had successfully launched a New Shepard rocket to an altitude of 100.1 kilometers -- just over the altitude generally considered to be "space" -- and returned it to a vertical landing on Earth. The video the company released showed actual footage of the launch and landing, but computer graphics of the in-flight portion to show what future customers would experience if they were aboard, creating some confusion. No one was aboard the vehicle. Additional such flights have now taken place using the same vehicle, demonstrating its reusability, which the company considers critical to keeping costs down. Blue Origin also is building rocket engines using a different type of fuel (liquid natural gas, or methane) than traditionally used. It is called BE-4. United Launch Alliance is considering using the BE-4 for a new rocket it is building, Vulcan, to replace the Atlas V in the early 2020s.
Other companies also are interested in the commercial suborbital market for experiments, people, or both. Today they include Near Space Corporation, UP Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, and World View Enterprises (Near Space and World View use stratospheric balloons instead of rockets). NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) awards indefinite-delivery indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contracts through its Flight Opportunities Program to companies offering suborbital flight services to enable STMD to test technologies from industry, academia and the government in a relevant flight environment. STMD's website also explains the program is intended to foster the development of the commercial reusable suborbital transportation industry. As of June 2016, those four companies plus Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are under contract.
Separately, in October 2014 NASA's Launch Services Program (under the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate) awarded contracts for "Venture Class" launch services to place very small satellites (cubesats, microsats, and nanosatellites) in orbit. The three awardees are Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab USA, and Virgin Galactic.
Some companies also have announced plans to build systems to take people into orbit on a commercial basis separate from NASA's commercial crew program. Blue Origin is focused on suborbital flights now, but plans orbital flights in the future. Stratolaunch is an air-launched concept announced in December 2011 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, SpaceX founder Elon Musk, and Burt Rutan, who is now retired from Scaled Composites, but was a major contributor to the SpaceShipOne effort. In October 2014, Stratolaunch and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) announced that they are considering a partnership where Stratolaunch would be used to launch SNC's Dream Chaser winged spacecraft into orbit on either crew or cargo missions.
Separately, Robert Bigelow, owner of Budget Suites of America hotels, has been working for several years on a commercial space station using expandable modules (often referred to as "inflatable," but the correct term is expandable). Two subscale prototypes --Genesis I and Genesis II -- were launched on Russian rockets in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Bigelow Aerospace has been working with Boeing for several years to create a transportation system to take people back and forth to full scale space stations when they are launched. The Boeing spacecraft is the CST-100, which is now part of NASA's commercial crew initiative (and renamed Starliner). It would be launched aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle. In May 2012, Bigelow Aerospace announced an agreement with SpaceX to market their combined capabilities to launch people to space where they could stay aboard Bigelow space stations. The services will be marketed only outside the United States. In January 2013, NASA signed a $17.8 million contract with Bigelow Aerospace to add one of Bigelow's inflatable modules to the International Space Station (ISS). The Bigelow Expandable Activities Module (BEAM) was launched to the ISS in 2016 on the SpaceX CRS-8 (SpX-8) flight and expanded in May 2016. Bigelow's structures trace their roots to NASA's cancelled Transhab project, which was intended to provide crew quarters on the ISS using such a module. BEAM is a small prototype, and Bigelow wants NASA to attach a full size B330 module to the ISS in 2020, a concept he calls XBASE..
OTHER COMMERCIAL SPACE CONCEPTS
Several well known U.S. billionaires working with experienced space entrepreneurs announced plans in April 2012 to mine asteroids. The company, Planetary Resources Inc., reportedly was three years old at that point, but its founders decided to publicize it only in 2012. Backers of the company include movie producer and explorer James Cameron, Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi who flew into space twice as a space tourist on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and space entrepreneurs Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson. Later the company emphasized that it wants to prospect, not mine, asteroids, which would happen in the future. Subsequently, Planetary Resources announced plans for earth orbiting satellites to study Earth as another part of its business plan.
Deep Space Industries (DSI), another entrepreneurial space company that wants to mine asteroids, announced its plans in January 2013. Both companies are working with the government of Luxembourg, which is striving to be a leader in the space resources business. In June 2016, it announced that it will stake an initial 200 million Euros to become the "Silicon Valley" of space resource utilization.
In November 2015, President Obama signed into law the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA), P.L. 114-90, which allows U.S. companies like Planetary Resources Inc and DSI to claim property rights to resources mined from asteroids. The U.S. law has not been universally embraced by other countries. Russia, for example, claims that it violates Article II of the Outer Space Treaty.
In December 2012, Alan Stern, a space scientist and human spaceflight advocate, announced the formation of a new company, Golden Spike, to sell human trips to the Moon. Stern is a former NASA Associate Administrator for Science. He and a number of other former NASA officials, including Gerry Griffin, an Apollo flight director who later was the Director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, along with former House speaker Newt Gingrich, entrepreneur Esther Dyson, and former Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson are backers of the project. The group provided few details of the project at a press conference at the National Press Club on December 6, 2012, such as what rockets or spacecraft would be used. The cost would be $1.4 billion per mission, which would take two people to the lunar surface and back. As of May 2016, the company's website is no longer active.
Dennis Tito, another billionaire, who was the first "tourist" to fly to the International Space Station on a Russian spacecraft in 2001, formed another venture called Inspiration Mars. His initial proposal was to send two people, preferably a married couple, to Mars in 2018. They would not land on the planet, but fly on a free-return trajectory where, once launched from Earth, few maneuvers (and therefore fuel) are needed to get them to and around Mars and return to Earth. Their closest approach to the Martian surface would be 100 miles. The year 2018 is important because Mars and Earth are correctly aligned only every 26 months to permit spacecraft to make the journey. Some opportunities are better than others in terms of the amount of propellant needed; 2018 is one of the best. The next equivalent opportunity is not for another 15 years. In November 2013, however, Tito testified to Congress and revealed that he now wants this to be primarily a NASA mission. NASA replied that it is "unable to commit to sharing expenses" with him. The Inspiration Mars website is no longer active. However, the idea evolved into a "Mars Flyby 2021" concept championed by House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) that would be a NASA mission. Launching in 2021, it would need to fly first towards Venus to get a gravity assist from that planet to reach Mars since the Earth and Mars are not aligned properly for a direct flight that year. Rep. Smith has not mentioned it recently,
The list of entrepreneurial companies planning suborbital or orbital near Earth or further out in space is continually changing. It is not feasible to keep the list below up to date, so it should not be considered comprehensive.
U.S. AEROSPACE COMPANIES
In addition, Boeing and Lockheed Martin co-own
Other major U.S. aerospace companies that manufacture spacecraft, instruments and/or launch vehicles and/or provide launch services include:
Major U.S. companies that sell space-related products or services include:
MAJOR NON-U.S. AEROSPACE COMPANIES