10 Major Players in the Private Sector Space Race

Governments and Space Agencies
Armadillo Aerospace and its rocket vehicle (pictured here) won $500,000 by completing the second level of the lunar lander challenge in 2009, part of NASA's Centennial Challenges program. Photo courtesy NASA/James Blair

Few countries eyeing the space sector possess the deep pockets or political will to fund a national space program, so their governments leverage what they can: the ability to provide monetary incentives, the clout to gather key actors around the negotiating table and the savvy to combine brainpower and resources to good effect.

The European Space Agency, for example, leverages intellectual capital and research facilities from across Europe and encourages prominent, specialized companies and research groups to establish space clusters -- collaborations on space-related R&D projects.

NASA, too, helps bootstrap private enterprises through its Centennial Challenges and collaborations with commercial space companies, and by offering some of its idle launch pads for private rental [source: Boyle]. Its Commercial Crew Initiative incentivizes space enterprises to build cheap space taxi services for astronauts and cargo. In 2008, the space agency entered into billion-dollar contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to ferry cargo to and from the International Space Station: eight flights from Orbital (valued at about $1.9 billion) and 12 flights from SpaceX (valued at about $1.6 billion) [source: NASA].

So far, so good: As of September 2013, Orbital was performing its demonstration run to prove to NASA that its tech and expertise were good enough to pull off touchy orbital maneuvers and autonomously dock with the ISS. SpaceX had already completed two such missions by that time [source: Achenbach].

But relying on government capital raises a difficult question: Will the funding continue? Against such uncertainty, sometimes the only response is to take things one (fierce) step at a time, like our next company.