Private Space Exploration

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Private Space Exploration

by James G. Barr

Docid: 00018011

Publication Date: 2112

Publication Type: TUTORIAL


Once the exclusive province of government organizations such as NASA and the US Defense Department, the
business of space exploration is going increasingly private, with firms
like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Orbit boosting people and payloads
into orbit and enabling a new industry – space tourism. In some cases, private
firms are partnering with NASA to perform large-scale missions like returning
astronauts to the moon and setting foot on the planet Mars.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy appeared before the US
Congress and proposed, famously, that the US “should commit itself to
achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the
moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” a grand plan achieved on July
20, 1969, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the
lunar surface.

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The hard work of managing this immense project was entrusted to a new
federal agency called NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration, created in 1958 in response to the launching of the
world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, by the Soviet Union, a “cold
war” adversary.

During and since the Apollo moon mission, NASA has presided over a wide
range of space projects, including:

  • The launching of the first weather and communications satellites
  • The first flybys of our nearest planetary neighbors, Venus and Mars
  • The deployment of SkyLab, the first US space station
  • The landing of the first vehicle on another planet, Viking 1 on Mars
  • The development of the Space Shuttle, the first reusable space vehicle
  • The deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space

Despite these accomplishments, the public’s interest in space
and space exploration began to wane in the early 1970s, especially as the
moon landings failed to furnish the political impetus to send men and women
to Mars. Invoking the title of a popular ’60s sci-fi series, some
NASA critics alleged that the agency was “lost in space,” preferring to
restrict its missions to earth-orbital projects and deep space probes.

NASA’s relatively unambitious agenda contrasted with the vision advanced
by Stanley Kubrick in his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the
filmmaker predicted the existence of commercial “spacelines” (in the film, ironically,
the now-defunct Pan Am) by the turn of the century – a forecast that at
the time seemed strangely pessimistic given the pace of the US manned
space program.

While NASA still presides over US space exploration – particularly in
terms of astronomy and planetary sciences – the ’60s-level passion that
culminated in the Apollo 11 moon landing is primarily being resurrected by
billionaire-led commercial interests like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin
Orbit – firms that not only advocate for the commercial development of
space but the establishment of a space tourism industry, where everyday
citizens can enjoy a Star Trek moment.

Public to Private

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In some ways, the transition from public to private space exploration,
while gradual, seems inexorable. Public financing requires
public support and, as space historian John Logsdon observes, “That impulse
is certainly less widespread than it was 50 years ago.”1

As analyst Marina Koren writes, “Ignoring the reality of America’s
ambivalence toward space travel is becoming much more difficult. In
a Morning Consult poll published in February, only eight (8) percent [of
survey participants] said sending astronauts to the moon should be a top
priority, and seven (7) percent said the same for a mission to Mars.”2

Obviously, the CEOs of space companies are less
constrained by public opinion. Where they see profit – like
servicing the International Space Station or propelling paying passengers
into orbit for a literal “out of this world” experience – they have been
eager to fill the space exploration vacuum.

The public/private space divide has been advantageous for both sides as
NASA, no longer solely responsible for space research and development, can partner with
firms like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others to develop next generation:

  • Launch vehicles
  • Landing craft
  • Life support systems
  • Planetary probes
  • Navigational software
  • Flight control instrumentation
  • Space-industrial equipment

For their part, space companies can pursue ventures like lunar, asteroid,
and comet mining and space tourism – activities clearly beyond NASA’s
present remit.

Space Exploration Companies

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“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be
great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all
about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the
past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out
there and being among the stars.”

– Elon Musk, CEO, SpaceX

Space is big and space exploration requires big thinkers with big
resources. It’s not surprising, therefore, that today’s legion of
space entrepreneurs would be led by billionaire businessmen like:

  • Elon Musk – SpaceX
  • Jeff Bezos – Blue Origin
  • Richard Branson – Virgin Orbit


Established in 2002 by Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors, PayPal,
and the Zip2 Corporation, SpaceX has assembled and flown an impressive
array of launch vehicles designed to accommodate a wide range of space
missions, including the:

  • Falcon 1 light-lift launch vehicle
  • Falcon 9 medium-lift launch vehicle
  • Falcon Heavy heavy-lift launch vehicle
  • Dragon, the first commercially produced spacecraft to visit the
    International Space Station

According to the company, “SpaceX products are designed to require
low-infrastructure facilities with little overhead, while vehicle design
teams are colocated with production and quality assurance staff to tighten
the critical feedback loop.” SpaceX has built a launch business that
boasts a variety of commercial, government, and international customers.

In addition to partnering with NASA to transport crews to the
International Space Station, a capability the US lost, rather
embarrassingly, when its space shuttle program was discontinued, SpaceX
services the national security community, contracting with the US Space
Force for multiple missions.

Critically, SpaceX has lowered the cost of rocket launches by developing
vertical takeoff/vertical landing technology that enables spent boosters
to gently return to earth post-flight for refit, refueling, and relaunch.

With typical Elon Musk-style ambition, SpaceX has a six-part plan to land men and
women on Mars. A key element of the plan is refueling the Mars
rocket using local, i.e., Martian, resources.

Figure 1. SpaceX Crew Dragon Docking with International Space Station<

Figure 1. SpaceX Crew Dragon Docking with International Space Station

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Blue Origin

Established in 2000 by Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of,
Blue Origin, like SpaceX, features reusable rockets, symbolized by the slogan
"Launch – Land – Repeat."

According to, “The company is currently developing a lunar
lander called Blue Moon that will make robotic cargo deliveries to the
lunar surface, and it is partnering with SpaceX and Dynetics to develop a
human-rated moon lander that will carry astronauts to the lunar surface
… under NASA’s Artemis Program.”

Unlike SpaceX, Blue Origin is investing in reusable suborbital rockets
like its New Shepard model that will allow space tourists to sample,
however briefly, the environs of outer space. Particularly given the
civilian component of Blue Origin’s operations, the company has declared
safety as its top mission, demonstrating the smoothness of its ride by
hosting 90-year-old William Shatner, Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk, on a
short haul above the atmosphere.

Virgin Orbit

Established in 2017 by aviation pioneer Richard Branson, Virgin Orbit
departs from the SpaceX/Blue Origin launch model by using a customized 747
aircraft as a mobile launch site, a mission control center, and a
“fully-reusable first stage vehicle.” As the company explains, “By beginning each mission at approximately
35,000 feet above sea level and already traveling at a high speed, [Virgin
Orbit’s] … LauncherOne rocket achieves a significant performance
advantage over grounded launch sites while reducing local carbon emissions
and acoustic impacts [associated with] a traditional ground launch. The mobility of the system also allows Virgin Orbit to bring launch
capabilities to dozens of nations that currently have space agencies and
satellite industries but no domestic launch capability.”

and Brazilian authorities have selected Virgin Orbit to provide local
launch capabilities, and the company has announced a launch site in Japan and
multiple locations in the United States, providing direct competition to
homegrown SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Virgin Orbit has successfully launched satellites for NASA and the US
Department of Defense.

Interestingly, the company is connecting with “constellation” partners to
provide an Internet of Things (IoT) offering using a “Satellites as a
Service” framework. This IoT solution “will focus on connectivity
applications for ship management, aircraft, pipeline monitoring, and
intelligent agriculture, which has the potential to help improve
efficiency across some of the world’s biggest industries.”

A Public/Private Partnership

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With roles and responsibilities still emerging and evolving, here’s how
NASA and the private space companies will likely operate and cooperate.

Table 1. Space Missions and Principal Providers
Mission Principals

Servicing the International Space Station
by transporting crews and ferrying supplies

NASA is partnering with SpaceX and Boeing to transport crews to the
International Space Station, and with SpaceX and Northrop Grumman to
ferry supplies.

NASA, SpaceX,
Boeing, Northrop Grumman
Launching commercial and non-commercial satellites

SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Orbit, and other space firms are
gaining market share in the satellite launch business.

NASA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Orbit
Launching space telescopes

The James Webb Space Telescope (a replacement for the
highly-successful Hubble Space Telescope) is scheduled for launch in
December 2021.
Redirecting near-earth asteroids and comets

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), designed to test
technologies for defending the Earth against potential asteroid or
comet impacts, launched in November 2021.

NASA, SpaceX
Exploring the solar system with orbiting satellites and robotic

The Mars Perseverance Rover, designed to seek signs of ancient life
and collect rock and soil samples for subsequent return to Earth,
landed on the red planet in February 2021.

Exploring the solar system via planetary flybys

In July 2015, after a voyage of nearly 10 years and more than 3
billion miles, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew within 7,800
miles of Pluto.

Resuming lunar exploration and, potentially, colonization

Delayed till 2025, NASA’s current moon mission is called Artemis,
named for Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology. Artemis is
considered a staging platform for an ultimate Mars mission.
NASA, SpaceX
Landing a person on Mars

While the government’s interest in landing a person on Mars has
receded in recent decades, private space companies, particularly
SpaceX, are embracing the challenge, and may beat NASA to the fourth
planet from the Sun.

NASA, SpaceX
Mining the moon, asteroids, and comets for valuable minerals

The moon, asteroids, and comets are rich repositories of valuable
minerals. Extracting those minerals, like drilling for oil and
gas on Earth, should evolve into a lucrative, probably mid-21st
century, industry.

NASA, SpaceX, Blue Origin
Developing faster, more efficient inter-planetary propulsion

Missions to Mars and beyond are dangerous for astronauts due to
prolonged exposure to low gravity and solar radiation. Consequently, increasing vehicle velocity is a major priority. NASA is presently looking at two types of nuclear propulsion systems
– nuclear electric and nuclear thermal.3

Lowering the cost of achieving earth orbit

The most expensive part of space travel is the so-called “first
hundred miles.” While the development of recoverable launch
vehicles has reduced the overall cost of launching people and
payloads into space, vehicles still rely on what was once described,
derisively, as “flying gas can technology.” Research into
orbital shuttles should, finally, be a priority.

NASA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Orbit
Enabling safe, reliable, and affordable “space tourism”

While, presently, space tourism is for the rich and famous like William
Shatner, the goal is to provide the public with orbital and sub-orbital
experiences (like weightlessness) for the same price as high-end airline

Blue Origin, Virgin Orbit
Implementing sanctioned – and unsanctioned – “geoengineering”

The University of Oxford defines “geoengineering” as “the deliberate
large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to
counteract climate change.” Some believe that since political
efforts to mitigate climate change may – indeed, probably will – be
unsuccessful, the only chance to avert the crisis is solar radiation
management (SRM), either reflecting a portion of sunlight back into space by,
for example, spraying reflective sulfate particles into the stratosphere, or
positioning a "solar shield" in space that would regulate the amount of
sunlight penetrating the atmosphere.

While both NASA and companies like SpaceX may be contracted to
implement government-sponsored SRM projects, there is concern that well-meaning
private interests may undertake such projects on their own initiative, i.e.,
without government consensus and authorization.

NASA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Orbit

Where No One Has Gone Before

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On the far frontier of space exploration is the potential for
interstellar travel with ships powered by faster than light (FTL) engines,
or in the language of Star Trek, “warp drive.” Once considered impossible owing to Einstein’s Theory of General
Relativity which states that nothing can travel faster than the speed of
light, the quest to develop warp drive gained sudden momentum in 1994 when
a Mexican theoretical physicist, Miguel Alcubierre, suggested that the
light speed barrier could be circumvented by manipulating space –
specifically, compressing the space in front of a warp ship and expanding
the space behind it.

While building the Alcubierre Warp Drive poses plenty of problems,
including the requirement to generate massive amounts of negative energy,
NASA is probably devoting at least a few research dollars to warp drive
design in the hope, for example, of one day being able to traverse the
distance between Earth and Proxima Centauri B, an exoplanet orbiting in
the habitable zone of the Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun.

In addition to NASA, some private individuals and, in one case, the
nonprofit Limitless Space Institute, are conducting “pioneering research
in technology that will make interstellar travel possible.”

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Blue Origin:
US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA):
Virgin Orbit:


1 Marina Koren. “The Uncomfortable Truths of American
Spaceflight.” The Atlantic. November 10, 2021.

2 Ibid.

3 Clare Skelly. "Nuclear Propulsion Could Help Get Humans to Mars
Faster." NASA. February 12, 2021.

About the Author

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James G. Barr is a leading business continuity analyst
and business writer with more than 40 years’ IT experience. A member of
“Who’s Who in Finance and Industry,” Mr. Barr has designed, developed, and
deployed business continuity plans for a number of Fortune 500 firms. He
is the author of several books, including How to Succeed in Business
BY Really Trying
, a member of Faulkner’s Advisory Panel, and a
senior editor for Faulkner’s Security Management Practices.
Mr. Barr can be reached via e-mail at

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