The commercial space race is blasting off. Here’s what you need to know.

Megaships, 3D-printed engines and satellite constellations are among the innovations helping private companies reach the stars.

By Michael Belfiore

In a small control room in Alameda, California, last November, half a dozen flight controllers monitored a two-stage, 43-foot rocket venting liquid oxygen. The rocket sat on a pad more than 3,000 miles up the coast in Alaska. This was the team’s fourth attempt to reach orbit, this time with a payload for the U.S. Space Force.

When the count reached zero, the rocket’s five first-stage engines erupted fire, and the rocket lifted smoothly into the night sky, quickly gathering speed. Three minutes later, at an altitude of 72 miles, the first stage dropped away, the second stage lit its single engine and employees in the offices adjoining the control room broke out in cheers.

Astra, the latest commercial space launch company to reach orbit, was officially in business. It was just one of the major developments in commercial spaceflight in the last couple of years.

Photo courtesy of Brady Kenniston/Astra

Now the biggest rocket ever built (by SpaceX) is preparing to take flight from Texas. Separately, startup Rocket Lab plans to launch its first missions to orbit from Virginia (it already launches from New Zealand). And NASA has signed off on adding commercial modules from Axiom Space to the International Space Station.

“Every year, I say this is the most exciting year in space history,” says Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO. “But, you know, every year, it really is.”

Private companies are building new highways to the stars, with dividends to be realized by government, commercial and academic customers that will ultimately benefit the global economy. These efforts are driven by advances in automation, data collection and analysis, and manufacturing.

A potential $1.4 trillion market

Three different crewed private rocket ships built by three separate companies soared out of the atmosphere in 2021. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin took their founders into space, with 90-year-old “Star Trek” star William Shatner riding Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. And SpaceX flew the first all-commercial, non-professional astronaut crew to orbit on a mission dubbed Inspiration 4. That mission raised $243 million for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

“I think if you narrow down who can go up into space to just a select few, you are cheating humanity out of understanding our place in the universe,” says Inspiration 4 crew member Chris Sembroski.

Inspiration 4 commander and sponsor Jared Isaacman sees commercial spaceflight as the next step in developing a robust economy in space. “Think how much different our world would be today if the U.S. Army were still flying our mail before the commercialization of aviation,” he says.

Also furthering that economy is Axiom Space. Early in 2022, it plans to send the first all-commercial crew to the International Space Station on a SpaceX rocket. And in 2024, it plans to attach a privately built extension to the station, where Tom Cruise reportedly intends to shoot a movie.

If you narrow down who can go up into space to just a select few, you are cheating humanity out of understanding our place in the universe.

—Chris Sembroski, Inspiration 4 crew member

It won’t be the first time filmmakers have gone to the station. In October 2021, Russian film star Yulia Peresild and director Klim Shipenko visited the International Space Station to shoot a feature.

But perhaps the most active arena in commercial space flight is lofting constellations of small satellites for communications and Earth observation. SpaceX has sent up more than 2,000 Starlink satellites with the goal of blanketing Earth with broadband service. Satellites launched by Rocket Lab for BlackSky image some areas of our planet’s surface up to 15 times a day, according to BlackSky.

SpaceX SAOCOM 1A Mission. Photo courtesy of SpaceX/Unplash.

SpaceX plans to up the ante with its Starship rocket, slated for its first orbital flight in 2022. The company’s Falcon 9 rocket launches 60 satellites at a time, but Starship—planned as the largest, most powerful rocket ever flown—will carry more than six times that number. In addition, NASA has contracted SpaceX to send the first astronauts to the moon in nearly 50 years aboard Starship, and SpaceX wants to send people to Mars on it.

With all the new activity, space is poised for a gold rush. A forecast from Bank of America puts the space industry at $1.4 trillion by 2030 (up from $424 billion in 2019), on par with the $1.5 trillion tourism industry.

New tools for a new space age

The frequent flights, reusability and unprecedented power realized by the new rockets are made possible by advances in computer-aided design and manufacturing.

Rocket Lab 3D prints its Rutherford rocket engines and builds rockets out of carbon fiber composites. Such innovations help it build quickly and keep its vehicles light enough for recovery and reuse.

Relativity, a 15-minute drive from SpaceX in the Los Angeles area, has gone even further with 3D printing. The startup is building its Terran 1 rocket entirely on 3D printers of its own design. “We view additive manufacturing with 3D printing as an automation technology,” says Scott Van Vliet, senior vice president of software engineering at Relativity. “It’s important to aerospace manufacturing because it empowers exponential designers, engineers and builders to iterate and improve product design and production at a much faster rate than traditional manufacturing methods.”

The company says it has deployed advanced robotics, machine learning and software-defined manufacturing to build Stargate, a system it claims is the world’s biggest metal 3D printer. Stargate is designed to print a rocket within 60 days.

“Through our software-driven manufacturing process, our team collects detailed data on our rocket as we’re printing it,” the Van Vliet says. “We use that data to reinforce how to make our process better, faster and more cost-effective over time.”

Relativity plans to launch its first rocket this year.

Riches from space

Undoubtedly, riches abound in space, from endless energy from the sun unfiltered by Earth’s atmosphere or curtailed by a day-night cycle to all the minerals found on Earth many times over. But getting to them depends on sustainable flights that can scale up over time. That means developing a vigorous space economy, much as the aviation industry did in the air by flying mail for the government and barnstorming for thrill-seekers before transitioning to routine commercial flights. The space industry seems well on its way to following suit with revenue-generating space-based broadband, space tourism, entertainment and more.

In 2022, the Astra team advanced to the center stage of rocketry at Cape Canaveral, the launch site of the Apollo moon rockets and the first reusable spaceships. Astra’s first operational mission: flying CubeSats for NASA, with more to follow for the space agency in a subsequent launch. It was just one more indication that the final frontier is open for business.

Lead photo courtesy of Brady Kenniston/Astra