How is it that we are able to enjoy live national or worldwide television and radio broadcasts? Make international telephone calls? Use high-speed Internet and nationwide paging services? Receive weather forecasts? Manage natural resource use? Respond to emergencies and disasters? Pay by credit card at a retail store? Satellite technology is the short answer. But how do those satellites make it into space? This is the function of commercial space transportation.
Thirty years ago there was no commercial space transportation industry. By 2009, U.S. commercial space transportation and the services and industries it enables accounted for more than $208 billion in economic activity. Over one million people were employed as a result of these activities. This level is likely to grow in the future as new applications dependent on commercial space transportation emerge.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is the U.S. government organization responsible for regulating the safe operations of the U.S. commercial space transportation industry and facilitating its international competitiveness. It accomplishes its task by licensing and permitting these activities, which include expendable and reusable orbital launch vehicles, and suborbital launch vehicles. The AST innovative experimental launch permitting process is designed for the testing, development, and reentry of reusable suborbital launch vehicles. As private industry comes closer to testing vehicles that will be capable of taking passengers and tourists on suborbital flights, companies and organizations are proposing to offer training in human spaceflight training and several organizations have already begun to provide this service.
Space transportation is the movement of, or means of moving objects, such as satellites and vehicles carrying cargo, scientific payloads, or passengers, to, from, or in space. Commercial space transportation is carried out using orbital and suborbital vehicles owned and operated by private companies or organizations for profit, procured through a competitive bidding process. The U.S. space transportation industry operates in almost half the states in the United States. Today, there are several companies around the world that offer orbital commercial launch services. Additionally, some companies are being established to offer suborbital services for paying passengers. In recent years, commercial launches have comprised about one-third of all launches conducted worldwide.
Another, growing part of the commercial space transportation industry in the United States is the development of private or state-operated launch, re-entry, and processing sites known as commercial spaceports (PDF). These spaceports can provide alternatives to government launch sites operated by the U.S. Air Force or NASA. AST licenses the operation of commercial spaceports in the U.S. By 2010, AST had issued eight licenses in seven states.