June 4, 2012

Kim Wells is a senior international trade specialist with 19 years of experience supporting commercial space exports.

By now, you’ve heard the news—for the first time ever, a commercial company has launched to and berthed with the International Space Station!  On May 22, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule from Cape Canaveral, Florida to resupply the Station.  After three days of very precise maneuvers, the Dragon capsule then berthed with the Station and the astronauts, representing Russia, Europe, and the United States, opened the hatch door to welcome a new world of commercial space ventures.

View from the International Space Station of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft as the station’s robotic arm moves Dragon into place for attachment to the station. May 25, 2012. Photo: NASA

View from the International Space Station of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft as the station’s robotic arm moves Dragon into place for attachment to the station. May 25, 2012. Photo: NASA

Until now, this type of exploration activity in space had only been attempted by very few governments and no private companies.  But space exploration isn’t cheap, and with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA sought a more cost-effective way to re-supply cargo to the Station.  The result was NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, in which SpaceX and Orbital Sciences were selected to develop the ability to delivery cargo—and potentially, crew—to the International Space Station so that NASA could begin to focus its efforts on more challenging exploration ventures—like returning to the Moon or traveling to Mars.  On top of that, using commercial services for resupply is projected to save NASA up to $4 billion.  In just four and a half years, and only $300 million dollars, the all-American Falcon 9 rocket went from a blank sheet to first launch.  Hopefully, this successful launch and docking will be just the first of many, many commercial trips that support the international exploration of space.

The International Space Station has always been a collaborative venture.  Japan, Russia, Europe and many others contributed to its construction and continue to support its operation. But never before has the private sector been involved.  Until now.

This opportunity was also a big change for SpaceX.  Founded in 2002 by PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX has privately built the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets from the ground up in its Hawthorne, California facility.  SpaceX employs over 1,800 people in high-tech jobs primarily in California, Texas and Florida, but also supports over 1,700 suppliers nationwide.  In fact, each Falcon 9 rocket launch supports over 750 jobs—220 at SpaceX and another 530 indirect positions!

The mainstay of any commercial rocket business is launching satellites.  We use satellites each day –whether we know it or not.  Rockets like the Falcon 9 have launched everything from communications satellites (so you can call your friends), GPS satellites (so you can find out where to go meet them), remote sensing/imaging satellites (so you can have an accurate map and picture of where you’re going), and broadcast satellites (so you can watch TV once you arrive).  In 2011, there were 18 commercial satellites launches around the world, which generated approximately $1.9 billion in revenue from the launches alone.  Most of those satellites were built in the United States, supporting thousands more high-tech jobs in suppliers across the country.

In addition to U.S. manufacturing, thousands of more jobs are created in the satellite services sector.  The commercial space sector provides jobs, and spurs innovation, exploration, international cooperation and partnerships.

While supplying the Space Station via commercial transportation is good business, its high-profile mission is also great advertising for the more traditional business line of launching satellites for customers–foreign and domestic.  The International Trade Administration works to support this type of advancement, not just at SpaceX, but for all U.S. companies.  SpaceX and other commercial space companies have worked closely with offices in the Commercial Service and Manufacturing and Services to identify foreign opportunities and address policy concerns that could impede their competitiveness.

This effort is a historic accomplishment for NASA, SpaceX, and the American space program, borne out of the ingenuity, hard work and determination to restore America’s domestic access to the International Space Station.  As a nation, we should be proud of this example of American innovation and technological achievement, the economic benefit that it provides to U.S. citizens and overarching rewards that are shared by people around the globe as we explore space together.


  1. Great article!

    It’s very exciting to see the private sector involved in this achievement, and I’m glad Nasa showed the foresight to allow it rather than block it.

    Nasa obviously has a huge range of research into not only this but various other potential missions, and hopefully this successful joint venture can lead to missions further afield if they can be proven to be viable.

  2. As a Florida business, it is good to see the private sector and Nasa working together on the space station.

  3. The evolving relationship between government and private entities will result in rapid technological advances in the aerospace industry with many other sectors of the US economy benefiting as well. SpaceX’s completion of this NASA contract paves the way for further space exploration, including more public-private contracts with companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Orbital Sciences, and Sierra Nevada Corporation. I am personally excited about the commercial space industry because of the impact it will have on the biomedical industry. For instance, the International Space Station (ISS) has been home to many medical discoveries including the current development of a Salmonella vaccine. Bacteria and viruses mutate at a much faster rate in low orbit than they do on Earth, making it easier for vaccines and medicines to be developed much faster. Many of the companies previously mentioned have stated their intent to collaborate with pharmaceutical companies such as Baxter, Pfizer, and Eli Lily in the development of space stations, similar to the ISS, exclusively for medical research. Being that space and medicine are not usually discussed in the same sentence, it will be interesting to see how peoples’ perception of the two will develop over the next decade.
    There is something patriotic about wanting to be the first country to explore asteroids, the Moon, and Mars. I believe it is ingrained in our culture to strive for greatness and be the best leaders in the world. JFK’s initiative to land on the Moon was just one, very small “step for mankind” in that the public-private partnerships that strive to explore space will begin to take leaps and bounds in the next decade.

  4. Awesome. Finally our private sector gets the change to show how good we are. Thanks NASA for believing in us and give us the chance to show our potential

  5. I agree with Brian on the point that collaboration between government and private companies will expedite the process and make technological advances happen sooner. There are so many private companies now vying for a place in history, but I think that pioneers like Branson and Jain are going to make it happen in our lifetime.

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