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Private, Reusable Rockets Launch Commercial Satellites, Lowering Costs, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Satellite launches are benefitting from aerospace technology trends, as satellites are becoming much smaller, lighter and cheaper to make, but also because the rockets that blast them into orbit are evolving as well.  There are several companies worldwide involved in the development of reusable rockets, led by SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin, among others.  All are engaged in building spacecraft to deliver cargo and astronauts to platforms such as the International Space Station (ISS) as well as launch to satellites.
Blue Origin (, which is backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, led the pack with its development of a reusable rocket, first achieved when its New Shepard rocket completed a controlled, upright landing after a brief trip to space in November 2015.  In December 2017, the company launched the first flight of its Crew Capsule 2.0 with a test dummy aboard, followed by five successful flights with human crew and passengers.  In September 2022, an unmanned flight was aborted one minute after liftoff, resulting in a full technical review of the New Shepard.  As of late 2023, the New Shepard had not yet resumed service.
Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk started Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which is commonly called SpaceX (  The firm’s reusable rocket, called the Falcon 9, has successfully delivered numerous payloads and returned to Earth.  SpaceX also developed the Falcon Heavy, intended to be the world’s most powerful rocket, which made its first successful test flight in February 2018.  The Falcon Heavy generates more than 5 million pounds of thrust, is 230 feet tall and weighs 3.1 million pounds.  In addition, SpaceX’s Dragon free-flying spacecraft was the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station and return cargo to Earth in 2012.
The company has utilized its unique technologies and services to dramatically reduce the cost of orbital launches.  In May 2020, SpaceX’s first crewed mission of its Dragon spacecraft delivered two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) using an automated docking system.  This was the first time that such a launch was completed by a private, non-government firm.  By mid-2023, the Dragon had 40 total launches, 36 visits to the ISS and 18 reflight missions.  SpaceX is a contractor to NASA’s Artemis space program, which plans to send astronauts to the moon as early as 2025.  Boeing is also a major private space rocket contractor, as the prime supplier for NASA’s Space Launch System.
In 2021, SpaceX acquired two offshore oil rigs, intended to help them begin offshore launches by 2022.  Called Deimos and Phobos (names for the two moons of the planet Mars), the floating launch and landing sites are being developed for the forthcoming Starship reusable rocket and its booster, the Super Heavy.  Starship made a successful launch and vertical landing from its Starbase development site in Texas in May 2021.  Ultimately, SpaceX hopes to use its launch and landing sites as part of a global network of hypersonic travel hubs, taking up to 100 people and cargo from point to point around the Earth in minutes rather than hours.  In 2020, the firm signed an agreement with the U.S. Pentagon to study the feasibility of this network.  SpaceX has also worked with the U.S. Air Force and Army to demonstrate communications links.  In addition, the company has worked deals with the military for launching national security satellites and improving weather forecasts.
Meanwhile, The Biden administration earmarked $1.5 billion in funds in 2022 for NASA’s moon-lander program, which is designed to be an uncrewed launch as a precursor for a manned mission planned to occur as early as 2025 on a SpaceX rocket (part of a $2.9 billion contract awarded from NASA in 2021).  In May 2023, NASA announced the selection of Blue Origin to develop the Artemis V mission, which will once again carry humans to the moon.  A crewed demonstration flight is expected as early as 2029.
Launch cost is measured by a cost-to-Low Earth Orbit (LEO) metric, or the price for one rocket to launch one kilogram of cargo into low Earth orbit.  The Saturn V, a rocket used in the 1960s, had a cost-to-LEO of between $20,000 and $25,000, while the Falcon 9’s ratio is between $4,000 and $5,000.  Consider also the size differential between rockets.  SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has a payload of about 20 tons, which has to be filled in order to fly.  Rocket Lab’s much smaller 330.7-pound payload can more easily be filled, making it much faster and easier to schedule a flight, especially if multiple satellite firms can schedule loads on one flight.
A startup called Relativity Space ( is one of several up-and-coming firms working with 3D printing technology for reusable rockets.  The company’s printers (which are among the largest in the world), utilize 18-foot robotic arms with lasers capable of building a 7-foot by 14-foot fuel tank in a few days, and an engine in 10 to 12 days.  The goal is to create a rocket’s entire body in a single piece.  On March 22, 2023, the firm’s methane powered Terran 1 became the first 3D printed rocket to fly to space.  The company is also working on the Terran R with capabilities of missions from Earth to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Rocket Companies to Watch:
In addition, the governments of India, Russia, China and Japan are already operating, or working to develop, launch industries.
SPOTLIGHT:  SpinLaunch
Silicon Valley-based SpinLaunch ( is an aerospace startup that has raised $80 million in venture capital to build a catapult capable of hurling rockets into space.  The proposed technology would power a rocket in a tight radius, moving faster and faster until the system releases the craft with enough force to break free of the Earth’s gravity.  Investors include Airbus Ventures, Alphabet’s GV (formerly Google Ventures) and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.  SpinLaunch had a prototype of a rocket built in its California factory by early 2022, but it will need to build a centrifuge to launch the rocket that will be roughly three times the size of its test facility in New Mexico.

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