Who Will Win the Private Sector Space Race?

Competition is getting more intense as companies race to get astronauts back among the stars.

In his first Space Policy Directive, President Trump instructed NASA to send people to the moon, Mars and beyond—and he wants the private sector to pitch in.

“This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprints…” said Trump on signing his directive. “We will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, and perhaps someday, to many worlds beyond.”

Several companies have answered the call. Here are the frontrunners in the private sector space race—and how close they are to putting boots on alien worlds.

United Launch Alliance (ULA)

nearly $1 billion by the U.S. Air Force to develop its Vulcan Centaur rocket.

The Factory

ULA’s main factory is a 1.6-million-square-foot facility in Decatur, Alabama. The company’s Atlas and Delta launch rockets were built at the complex.

SpaceFlight Insider visits ULA’s Decatur facility.

ULA uses additive manufacturing to produce its rockets.

The Hardware

ULA’s venerable Atlas V and Delta rockets are destined to be replaced by the Vulcan Centaur—the largest and most powerful rocket ever to be built. The Vulcan has been tapped by NASA to be part of its Space Launch System (SLS), and will take ULA partner Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft—and rival SpaceX’s Crew Dragon—into space.

Atlas V Rocket.

Atlas V Rocket.

The Timeline

A ULA rocket will send a crewed Starliner to the International Space Station (ISS) next year. The Vulcan Centaur is scheduled for an initial flight in mid-2020—though Elon Musk has said he’d eat his hat with a side of mustard if the Vulcan flies a national security spacecraft before 2023.


Speaking of Musk, his SpaceX has been making a name for itself as a real industry disruptor—and a thorn in ULA’s side. Earlier this year the company completed the first flight of its Falcon 9 Block 5—the first American-made rocket that will take humans into orbit since the days of the space shuttle.

The Factory

SpaceX makes engines and other parts for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, and the Dragon space capsule, at its Hawthorne, California facility. SpaceX will build the Mars-capable Big Falcon Rocket at an 18-acre factory in the Port of Los Angeles nearby.

Over 70 percent of each Falcon launch vehicle is made or assembled in-house at Hawthorne; SpaceX claims this centralized approach allows it to avoid cost increases and schedule problems caused by relying on external parts makers. SpaceX has more than doubled the facility’s size—to almost 1 million square feet.

The Hardware

SpaceX manufactures the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets and is developing its Crew Dragon spacecraft for astronaut use.

SpaceX Falcon 9.

SpaceX Crew Dragon Interior.

And finally, there’s the BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket, a fully reusable vehicle that is part rocket and part spaceship—and would replace the Falcons and the Dragon.

SpaceX BFR.

The Timeline

SpaceX intends to fly an uncrewed test mission of the Crew Dragon in November. The first crewed test mission is anticipated for April 2019.

SpaceX recently announced that it will be taking Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa—and a group of artists—on a trip around the moon on the BFR in 2023.

And though Musk predicted flights to Mars as early as next year, people are skeptical about his timeline.

Blue Origin

Elon Musk isn’t the only billionaire looking skyward. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin to take people into space. The company was recently awarded $500 million by the U.S. Air Force to develop its New Glenn rocket. Earlier this year, Blue Origin successfully completed a launch and re-entry of its New Shepard reusable rocket.

The Factory

Blue Origin’s 750,000-square-foot rocket factory in Florida, near Kennedy Space Center, makes the New Glenn rocket. The company will also build a new testing and refurbishment center nearby. The New Shepard is built in a factory in Kent, Washington.

The company’s Huntsville, Alabama facility builds its new BE-4 rocket engines—which will power ULA’s Vulcan Centaur.

The Hardware

Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew capsule is now undergoing uncrewed flight tests.

New Shepard Crew Capsule Interior.

And the New Glenn heavy rocket, with a reusable first stage built for 25 missions, is scheduled for a first launch in 2020.

New Glenn rocket.

The company is also producing the BE-4 reusable rocket.

The BE-4 Engine during test firing.

Once astronauts reach lunar orbit, they would descend to the surface on Blue Moon, a large lunar lander currently in the conceptual design phase.

Blue Moon lunar lander.

The Timeline

Bezos plans for Blue Origin to land people on the moon by 2023 and spearhead human settlements. The company has no plans to send a spacecraft to Mars.

Jeff Bezos outlines plan for settling on the moon.

Northrop Grumman (NGIS)

Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NGIS), formerly Orbital ATK, is the company’s space arm. The Air Force recently awarded NGIS nearly $800 million for its OmegA launch system.

The Factory

NGIS operates out of Promontory, Utah. The complex is like a little standalone town, with its own fire department and water supply. The 2.5-million-square-foot factory manufactures and tests the solid rocket boosters for the SLS.

The Hardware

While NGIS works on the OmegA rocket, Northrop Grumman is also building the crew capsule for NASA’s Orion spacecraft, with Airbus producing the service module.

OmegA Large-Class Rocket.

The Timeline

OmegA is scheduled for ground tests in 2019 and a first launch in 2021. The Orion’s first crewless test flight is expected in 2020.


Despite Trump’s enthusiasm, another country might beat the U.S. to the moon. China has a growing an ambitious commercial space industry of its own.

The Factory

Little is known about the production capabilities of the country’s aerospace companies. But China’s national space budget is $8 billion—second only to the United States. And more than 60 Chinese companies have entered the market since 2014, when the government opened its space industry to the private sector, according to Xinhua News.

“We are really a startup growing on the shoulders of the state aerospace giant,” said Zhang Changwu, CEO of Landspace Technology Corp. “There’s no better time for a commercial rocket firm to grow in China than now.”

The Hardware

China is developing a new reusable rocket, the Long March 8, and a successor to its Shenzhou spacecraft for lunar exploration. The new spacecraft will go through testing next year. No timeline has been provided for a first crewed flight.

As for the commercial industry, OneSpace Technology’s Chongqing Liangjiang Star rocket and Landspace’s Zhuque-1 rocket are leading the way—though the Zhuque-1 failed to launch a satellite last month.

The Timeline

China wants to be one of the world’s top three space powers by 2030. The CNSA plans to land its Chang’e-4 lunar probe on the dark side of the moon by the end of this year—making China the first nation to land in that region.


ULA and Northrop Grumman have the pedigree. SpaceX and Blue Origin have the hungry billionaires. China is the wild card.

The commercial space industry is getting crowded and more competitive—promising an exciting race back to the stars.

Read more about China’s fast-growing commercial space industry at China’s Private Space Race.