Making a difference in space, from space, is a testament to how far our civilization has come, from space observatories to space stations.
Yuri Gagarin’s journey into outer space in 1961 changed everything, we began to come to terms with the fact that we can explore and exploit the worlds beyond ours.
Years after Yuri’s journey, we landed on the moon, and decades later a space economy that is valued at $447 billion and led by commercial space companies was built.
The space industry has today branched into 10 distinct sectors, which are; satellite launch, space tourism, lunar landing, earth observation, asteroid mining, satellite internet, space research, space debris, manufacturing, and deep space exploration.
Morgan Stanley’s Space Team estimates that the global space market could be worth $1 trillion by 2040. And it believes that the satellite internet sector would be the major driver of the space market in the medium-term future.
There is so much to explore and so much to exploit in space and here are the top 7 private space companies that matter:
SpaceX is the leader of the contemporary space industry, like Tesla in the EV industry, the space giant designs, manufactures, and launches the world’s most advanced rockets and spacecraft.
Founded in 2002, the 20 years old company is focused on making life multi-planetary, and building the technology/infrastructure to get us there; revolutionizing space transportation along the way.
The company is making history in its drive for space exploration, it is the first and only private space company to return a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit, and the first to do it 100 times.
In 2012, SpaceX Dragon, a partially reusable cargo spacecraft, became the first commercial spacecraft to successfully resupply the International Space Station (ISS). And in 2020, it became the first private space company to take humans to the ISS.
So far, SpaceX has had 139 launches, 101 landings and has re-flown 79 rockets. Here are the spacecrafts in the company’s portfolio:
- Falcon 9
- Falcon Heavy
- Starship (underdevelopment)
SpaceX also operates a satellite internet constellation, known as Starlink, that provides satellite internet access to subscribers on earth.
2. Blue Origin
Blue Origin is a leading spaceflight company that designs, manufactures, and operates suborbital and orbital spacecrafts mainly to enable space tourism.
The company was founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, with the vision of “enabling a future where millions of people are living and working in space for the benefit of Earth”.
In 2015, Blue Origin made history after it successfully launched an unmanned New Shepard, a reusable rocket, up to suborbital space and returned it safely to Earth.
And in 2021, on the Anniversary of the first moon landing, Blue Origin launched it’s first astronaut flight (crewed mission) into suborbital space aboard New Shepard.
The crew members of that historical flight include founder Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos, then 18-year-old Oliver Daemen (the youngest person in space), and then 82-year-old Wally Funk (oldest person in space).
Blue Origin is a major player in the drive to build a space tourism economy and the company is transforming space travel as it seeks to colonize the solar system.
In 2023, NASA announced that it had selected Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital rocket to launch the EscaPADE spacecraft to Mars. The mission is targeting a launch window between 6 and 15 August 2024.
Here are the spacecrafts in Blue’s portfolio:
- New Shepard (a suborbital rocket)
- New Glenn (a heavy-lift orbital rocket underdevelopment)
- Blue Moon (a moon-landing rocket underdevelopment)
3. Northrop Grumman
Northrop Grumman is a multinational defense and aerospace technology company that has a dedicated unit called “Northrop Grumman Space Systems”. The company claims it “solves the toughest problems in space”.
In 2018, Northrop Grumman, a major US defense contractor, became a major player in the space industry when the FTC approved its acquisition of Orbital ATK.
Orbital ATK is the result of a 2015 merger between two major players in the space industry, Orbital Sciences Corporation and the aerospace division of Alliant Techsystems.
The company had previously acquired Scaled Composites, the developers of SpaceShipOne (the first private crewed suborbital spacecraft to reach space). However, Orbital ATK was the game-changer for Northrop.
Today, Northrop Grumman’s space sector, Northrop Grumman Space Systems, provides end-to-end space and launch systems for the United States Government and commercial customers.
One of Northrop’s major contracts includes the International Space Station resupply missions which it executes using the two-stage Antares rocket launcher and the Cygnus spacecraft. The company also supplies the rocket booster used on the Delta II, Delta IV, and Atlas V ULA rockets.
With a lot of space-related products like rockets, rocket engines, satellites and spacecrafts, and huge government space contracts, it is easy to see why Northrop Grumman has risen to become a leading space company.
Here are the rockets in its portfolio:
- Minotaur I
- Minotaur IV
- Minotaur V
- Minotaur VI
4. United Launch Alliance
United Launch Alliance is a 50-50 joint venture of two space powerhouses, Boeing Defense, Space & Security, and Lockheed Martin Space, that provides spacecraft launch services to the United States Government.
The space company is the most experienced space launch company in the United States, it has completed more than 145 consecutive launches with a 100% mission success rate.
ULA has been involved in notable space missions including the lift-off of Curiosity rover and Juno spacecraft both on Atlas V in November and August 2011 respectively.
Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy are the two rockets currently in ULA’s portfolio, both of which are expendable. And it is currently developing Vulcan Centaur, another expendable albeit more powerful rocket, that is expected to make its first spaceflight in 2022.
United Launch Alliance is a traditional space company, one that lags behind technologically in comparison with the likes of SpaceX. Its line of rockets are still expendables and there’s no solid near-future plan to climb on the reusable rockets train.
5. Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic is a spaceflight company that develops commercial spaceflights with the aim of providing suborbital spaceflights to space tourists.
The company was founded by Sir Richard Branson in 2004 and has been positioning itself to become a leader in the space tourism industry. It has a suborbital spacecraft, StarShipTwo-class VSS Unity, that is designed to be air-launched from beneath a mothership (a carrier plane) known as White Knight Two.
In 2021, Sir Richard Branson along with three other astronauts completed a historic trip to the edge of space aboard Virgin Galactic’s spaceship. This space trip is considered a major milestone for the suborbital space tourism industry.
The drive of companies like Virgin Galactic is securing a future where access to space is readily available to millions of people who can afford a trip to the edge of space.
Virgin Galactic is a part of the Virgin Group which includes Virgin Orbit, a space technology company that provides launch services for small satellites.
6. Sierra Space
Sierra Space is the space subsidiary of aerospace and national security contractor, Sierra Nevada Corporation. The company is developing a reusable suborbital and orbital spacecraft known as the Dream Chaser, which was initially designed to carry out crewed missions to space but is currently being developed to also carry cargoes to low earth orbits.
The company has spent over $1 billion USD in its drive to develop an operational Dream Chaser and become a major player in the space industry. However, it has not had it easy at all.
The space company suffered a major setback when it lost a major NASA contract to use the Dream Chaser to fly astronauts to space. And this monumental setback rocked the development of the Dream Chaser, as a matter of fact, if not for Sierra Space doggedness, the Dream Chaser project could have been abandoned.
In 2016, Sierra Space won another contract to use the Dream Chaser to fly cargoes and supplies to the International Space Station. The company is expected to provide a minimum of seven cargo missions using the Dream Chaser beginning in 2022.
And this is why the Dream Chaser is currently being developed to carry cargoes to space, while plans for a crew-carrying Dream Chaser remain in place, albeit at a future timeline.
And In 2021, Sierra Space through Series A funding received a huge capital injection to the tune of $1.4 billion, which the company says will help it fly astronauts to space by 2025.
The company is also developing a space station known as LIFE Habitat that inflates in orbit to a 3-stories tall structure with a 27 feet diameter.
7. Rocket Lab
Rocket Lab is a space launch service provider that offers end-to-end mission services for small satellite launches, it was founded in 2006 by Peter Beck.
The company developed and operates a two-stage partially reusable orbital rocket, Electron, which it uses to launch CubeSats and small satellites to orbital space. So far, it has carried out 23 launches of which 20 were successful and has launched over 90 small satellites during the missions.
Rocket Lab developed a satellite bus Photon, which flies as the upper stage of Electron and is also developing a new medium-lift launch vehicle named Neutron.
In 2020, the company won a NASA contract to launch the CAPSTONE CubeSat to the Moon, and in 2021, it won a NASA design contract to deliver two Photon spacecraft for the mission into Mars orbit in 2024.
Rocket Lab is a major player in the space industry as the global leader in dedicated small satellite launches.