Commercial Launches

Launch Vehicles

Launch Licenses

Launch Sites and Spaceports

Satellites

Policy


Commercial Launches

What is a commercial launch?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) defines a commercial launch as having one or more of the following characteristics:

  • The launch is licensed by FAA.
  • The primary payload's launch contract was open to international competition.
  • The launch was privately financed without government support. Commercial launch vehicles are manufactured and marketed by private companies.

Back to top

When did the first licensed U.S. commercial launch take place?

The first such launch occurred in 1989, when a Starfire sub-orbital vehicle carried aloft the Consort-1 payload from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Back to top

How many commercial launches take place each year?

The number of launches that take place each year varies depending on the demand for launch services, launch site schedules, world events, and other factors. In 2010, 23 commercial launches occurred worldwide, four of which were launched by the United States.

Total: 23 Commercial Launches


2010 Worldwide Commercial Launch Activity

That year, commercial launches made up 31 percent of all launches. It is important to note that the number of commercial launches often trails the number of satellites they loft, as some launches deploy multiple satellites.

2010 Worldwide Launch Activity

2010 Worldwide Launch Activity

Back to top

How big is the commercial space launch industry?

In 2010, commercial launch revenues worldwide amounted to an estimated $2.45 billion. Annual revenues depend on the number and types of vehicles launched each year. An AST study of launches in 2009 revealed that the U.S. commercial space transportation industry and the industries it enabled, including satellite manufacturing and services, was responsible for generating nearly $208.3 billion in economic activity in the United States. That level is likely to grow in the future as new applications dependent on commercial space transportation emerge. Note: Launch payments are typically spread over multiple years. This estimates counts revenue in the year of launch.

Approximate Launch Revenues to Commercial Launch Events (2006-2010)

Approximate Launch Revenues to Commercial Launch Events (2006-2010)

Back to top

When will my family and I be able to fly into space?

Several companies are currently funding development of new orbital and suborbital vehicles to be used for a variety of tasks, including space tourism. To allow for the testing of suborbital vehicles, AST created a new experimental launch permit for the test, development, and re-entry of reusable suborbital launch vehicles.

Companies are hoping to launch people on short suborbital trips within the next year or two, with many people having already signed up for their short space ride. The establishment of a space tourism industry depends on the development of vehicles capable of launching people into space and returning them to Earth. Any such vehicle will have to be designed with reliability, safety, and comfort in mind.

Back to top

What is the difference between orbital and suborbital spaceflights?

Orbital spaceflight occurs when a spacecraft is placed on a trajectory with sufficient velocity to place it into orbit around the Earth.

Suborbital spaceflight occurs when a spacecraft reaches space but its velocity is such that it cannot achieve orbit. Many people believe that in order to achieve spaceflight, a spacecraft must reach an altitude higher than 100 kilometers (62 miles) above sea level.

Back to top

Launch Vehicles

What is the largest commercial launch vehicle available?

"Largest" can refer to any of a number of characteristics, including mass, height, or the mass the vehicle can carry to orbit, which is referred to as performance capability. For most commercial customers, a vehicle's performance capability is the most significant.

The U.S. vehicle with the current greatest performance capability is Boeing's Delta IV Heavy, which is capable of delivering 22,560 kg to LEO and 12,980 kg to GTO. Additional vehicles with large performance capabilities include:

  • Europe's Ariane 5 (17,250 kg to LEO and 10,500 kg to GTO)
  • Japan's H-IIA 212 (11,730 kg to LEO and 5,800 kg to GTO)
  • Russia's Proton M/Breeze M (21,000 kg to LEO and 5,500 kg to GTO)

These vehicles represent the most capable models in their respective vehicle families. A new launch vehicle, SpaceX's Falcon 9 Heavy, is currently being developed which would be able to launch an estimated capacity of 53,000 kg to LEO.

Active Commercial Launch Vehicles

Active Commercial Launch Vehicles

Back to top

Since the Space Shuttle has now retired, what other space vehicles can carry people into space?

There are currently two vehicles that carry people into orbit: Russia's Soyuz rocket and China’s Long March 2F, both of which are expendable launch vehicles that can be outfitted with a capsule designed for human flight in space and return to Earth.

The Russian Soyuz rocket has been sending people into space for decades, while the first Chinese launch to carry a person was in 2003. A number of private companies are working with NASA, through the Commercial Crew Development program, to develop reusable and expendable launch vehicles and spacecraft that could be used to carry people to the International Space Station and possibly other destinations.

Back to top

How can I get my company logo put onto the side of a commercial launch vehicle?

This matter needs to be discussed directly with launch companies. The U.S. government has no responsibility in this area.

Back to top

Launch Licenses

To whom do FAA's launch regulations and licensing procedures apply?

FAA's launch regulations require a license or a permit for all commercial launches taking place within U.S. borders as well as for launches being conducted abroad by U.S. entities. In general, FAA does not license launches by U.S. government organizations. In addition, certain classes of small rockets are exempt from licensing requirements. Please see Amateur Rocket Activities (PDF).

Back to top

How do I get a launch license?

Learn more about FAA's launch licensing and permitting processes.

Back to top

Launch Sites and Spaceports

Where do commercial vehicles launch from?

There are several launch sites available for commercial launches in the United States. The two sites used most frequently are Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida (located on the same piece of land as NASA's Kennedy Space Center, from where the Space Shuttle launched) and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Both of these are government-owned launch facilities and are used for launches of government-owned satellites. Commercial and government launches can also take place from any one of the eight non-federal launch sites, or "spaceports." (PDF) These include:

  • California Spaceport at Vandenberg Air Force Base
  • Spaceport Florida at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
  • Cecil Field Spaceport, Jacksonville, Florida
  • Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia
  • Mojave Air and Space Port in California
  • Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska
  • Oklahoma Spaceport, Burns Flat, Oklahoma
  • Spaceport America, Las Cruces, New Mexico

Back to top

What was the first licensed non-federal spaceport? How many exist now?

California Spaceport received the first-ever license for the operation of a non-federal spaceport in 1996. By 2010, FAA had issued eight licenses in seven states.

Back to top

What determines the location of a launch site?

The location of a launch site is determined by access to useful orbits and public safety. In order to protect the public's safety, launch sites are normally built as far away as possible from major cities in case of a catastrophic failure. Most launch sites are built close to bodies of water to ensure that should a failure occur, no components fall over populated areas.

Back to top

Satellites

What are LEO, GEO, GSO, and GTO?

These acronyms stand for "low-Earth orbit," "geosynchronous orbit," "geostationary orbit," and "geosynchronous transfer orbit," respectively. These are various orbits around the Earth into which satellites are often placed.

  • LEO refers to orbits that are typically less than 2,400 km (1,491 mi) in altitude.
  • GEO is an orbit around the equator roughly 36,000 km (22,369 mi) above the Earth.
  • GSO refers to geosynchronous orbits where satellites are synchronized with the Earth's rotation, orbiting once every 24 hours, and appear to observers on the ground as stationary in the sky.
  • GTO is an elliptical orbit into which satellites are often first launched in order to reach GEO.

Satellites also use other orbits, including medium-Earth orbit and sun-synchronous orbit, but LEO, GEO, and GTO are among the most common.

Back to top

Can U.S. satellite owners fly their satellites on foreign-owned rockets? Likewise, can non-U.S. satellite owners fly their satellites on U.S.-made vehicles?

The answer to both questions is yes.

Many U.S. commercial satellite owners launch their satellites on non-U.S. rockets, primarily European or Russian rockets; while U.S. owned and operated vehicles launch satellites owned by non-U.S. companies. However, U.S. policy mandates that U.S. government satellites use U.S. manufactured vehicles. All U.S. vehicles launch within U.S. borders. No foreign-made vehicles launch inside the U.S. Sea Launch, an international partnership whose launches are licensed by FAA, launches from the Pacific Ocean.

Back to top

Can satellites be recovered from space for repairs or be repaired on orbit?

The Space Shuttle was the only vehicle that could and did return satellites for repair, but since it has retired, there is currently no other launch vehicle capable of this. However, this does not mean that repairs will not occur or that satellites remain in their operating orbits forever. Certain repairs to satellite systems can be made with clever re-programming or other procedures done on Earth and uploaded to the satellite. When satellites are worn out or no longer needed, they are often either boosted into storage orbits or moved into orbits that will cause them to eventually fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

Both of these maneuvers are important because they help ensure that the older satellites won't interfere with operational satellites or take up valuable orbital slots that newer satellites could use. NASA and several commercial companies currently have plans for developing robotic spacecraft servicing technologies for the repair and refueling of satellites.

Back to top

I thought NASA conducted all space launches. Why didn't commercial satellites fly on the Space Shuttle?

When the Space Shuttle was first developed, NASA had hoped that private companies would launch their satellites on the Shuttle. Between 1981, the year of the Space Shuttle's inaugural flight, and 1985, the vehicle was used on occasion to place commercial satellites into orbit. But after the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, U.S. policy placed a general ban on flying non-government payloads on the Shuttle.

Until 2011, when it was retired from service, the Space Shuttle was used almost exclusively to support human spaceflight and the International Space Station. Today, commercial space launch vehicles are the only means of transportation to space in the U.S. for privately owned satellites. NASA helps to support the launch industry by flying many of its satellites on launch vehicles that it purchases from private companies.

Back to top

Policy

Why isn't NASA responsible for the safety and success of commercial space transportation?

NASA is a civil research and development agency of the federal government, and as such it neither operates nor regulates the commercial space transportation industry. The regulatory responsibility for the industry falls to the FAA, which is a regulatory agency. Both DOD and NASA, however, often launch satellites and spacecraft on vehicles developed by private companies and have programs to help develop commercial space transportation capabilities.

Back to top

Does the commercial space transportation industry receive U.S. government support?

The U.S. government does not directly subsidize the industry. However, the government recognizes the importance of space launch capability to science, military defense, communications, and the U.S. economy. As a result, the government supports the development of new vehicles and vehicle technologies, as well as launch infrastructure.

Back to top

How can I get a job in the commercial space transportation industry?

The future success of the space launch industry depends on the talents of aerospace and other types of engineers and scientists as well as business people. Strong academic performance and a degree in an engineering, scientific, or business discipline from an accredited college or university are essential.

Inquiries about positions in the industry should be directed to aerospace companies. AST does have limited job openings, which can be found on the AST website or at USAjobs.gov.

Back to top