10 Major Players in the Private Sector Space Race

Lockheed Martin, Boeing and United Launch Alliance
Orion undergoes recovery testing in August 2013. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion. U.S. Navy photo courtesy Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Scott Barnes

In any space race, old or new, it would be a mistake to discount experienced hands like Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

Lockheed Martin -- which has built every aeroshell flown by NASA to Mars, from Viking to the Curiosity rover to the upcoming Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft -- was responsible for two spacecraft inserted into lunar orbit in January 2012, and is developing the Orion crew capsule for NASA's Space Launch System [sources: Lockheed Martin; Lockheed Martin].

In October 2011, Boeing signed a 15-year lease to use a space shuttle hangar at Kennedy Space Center to build and oversee its Crew Space Transportation-100 (CST-100) spacecraft. NASA funded the ship via its Commercial Crew Development program to the tune of $110 million. Also on Boeing's to-do list: the core stage for NASA's Space Launch System, which the company will begin testing in January 2014 [sources: Matthews; Roop].

Meanwhile, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, continues to build Atlas V rockets, the platform on which several commercial ventures plan to launch their space planes or crew capsules. The mainstay rocket all but guarantees United Launch Alliance a future place at the table -- that, and ULA's 75 successful launches since its formation in 2006 (40 of which involved Atlas V vehicles) [source: United Launch Alliance].

The question is, will such strong ties to the old guard -- and the old school -- help carry the companies to the stars or strap them to a sinking ship? And can NASA keep the cash taps open over the long haul?