10 Major Players in the Private Sector Space Race

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX)
During one of its less exciting moments, SpaceX's Dragon capsule bides its time until it can rocket toward space once again. © NASA/Reuters/Corbis

On Dec. 8, 2010, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, launched the first privately owned ship ever to return safely from Earth orbit. The Dragon capsule, propelled to space atop a two-stage SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, had made history, but its famous founder,Elon Musk, didn't rest on his laurels: Not long after, he made the surprising claim that, within three years, his company would send astronauts to space at $20 million a pop.

Once viewed as a dark horse, SpaceX moved to the head of the pack in the years following Dragon's historical orbit. In fulfilling its $1.6 billion contract with NASA to haul cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), the company set another record, becoming the first private space enterprise to send an uncrewed spacecraft to the ISS [sources: Kramer; MSNBC].

But its successful resupply runs to and from the ISS only mark the beginning of the company's ambitions. Ultimately, the aim is to turn the Dragon cargo container into a seven-seat manned minivan, and SpaceX has begun that transition process.

In September 2013, SpaceX became embroiled in a legal wrangle with Blue Origin and the U.S. Government Accountability Office over whether private-sector bids on NASA's launch pad 39A would be winner-take-all, or would support a multi-user model. The outcome could have serious ramifications for companies seeking to dominate the available infrastructure [source: Boyle].