The space industry decades ago was dominated by governments, but times have changed. Many entrepreneurs have set their sights on the final frontier, especially after the development of cheaper and more advanced technology. These private individuals aren’t just idealists; they intend to prove their worth.
Below are the top space entrepreneurs currently active in the space race. You’ll find out how they want to contribute to space exploration or clean up Earth’s orbit.
The Entrepreneurs and Their Companies
As ranking these successful men and women can be highly subjective, we won’t be listing them in any particular order. But instead, we’ll cover their forays into space before describing what their companies do.
Nobu Okada was only 15 years old when he flew to Huntsville, Alabama. He was visiting the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.
There, he ran into Mamoru Mori. He also met Neil Armstrong, who had been his hero since childhood. The older man was the first Japanese astronaut and would write a note to Okada: “The challenge of space is waiting for you.”
From then on, Okada developed a fascination for space and the celestial realm and, in 2001, earned his MBA. However, it would only be after some forays into finance that he ventured into the space industry.
Okada had worked with McKinsey & Co. and other firms thanks to his MBA, but he decided to pursue entrepreneurship in 2009. That year, he went to Singapore and founded a software company; but he still wasn’t happy.
The note he received from Mori resonated in his mind, so he decided to merge his technical, startup, and financial experience to found Astroscale in 2013. Okada knew space debris was a problem, and he decided to solve it. So Okada founded Astroscale to develop new technologies and clean space.
Since its founding, Astroscale has received at least $191 million from private and public sources in funding. Besides the Singapore office, Astroscale is now a multinational company. There are offices in Japan, the U.K., and the U.S.; the latest is an office in Israel.
Besides founding Astroscale, Okada is active in many space organizations. Examples include the following.
- Vice President for Space Economy and Sponsorship, International Astronautical Federation
- Co-chair of The Future of Space Technologies Council
- World Economic Forum
- Space Generation Advisory Council Advisory Board
- Royal Aeronautical Society Fellow
- Space Civil Use Subcommittee
- Cabinet Office of the Japanese Government, Space Industry
Astroscale’s mission is to clean the Earth’s orbit. Due to what’s known as the Kessler effect, existing space debris can collide with other pieces or active satellites or, worse, human-crewed space flight. These events will only make the space around Earth unsafe for newer satellites and space exploration.
Calling themselves the space sweepers, Astroscale’s team members are developing spacecraft that capture orbital trash. The company’s ELSA-D mission demonstrates this technology, but the complete product ELSA-M isn’t out yet. So much more research needs to be done.
Once complete, tested and deployed, ELSA-M will capture old satellites and prevent them from contributing to the Kessler effect. It is currently the only spacecraft actively cleaning the Earth’s orbit.
Many eyes are on Nobu Okada’s company Astroscale and its daring mission. Space debris is a legitimate concern, especially with the massive increase in private satellite launches and tourist space travel. However, Okada wishes to make space safe for future generations and won’t stop in his mission.
Dr. Susmita Mohanty
Dr. Susmita Mohanty has some of India’s first, and even the world’s first, achievements related to space, such as founding the first Indian private space startup, EARTH2ORBIT. Even more impressive is being the foremost and only entrepreneur worldwide to have space-related companies on three separate continents. Dr. Mohanty herself has impressive credentials besides these.
As the daughter of Nilamani Mohanty, a former ISRO scientist, Dr. Susmita Mohanty was exposed to the beauty of space early on. She completed a master’s degree in Space Studies from the International Space University for further education.
Dr. Mohanty worked for the California-located ISS Program at Boeing before finding herself in Houston at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
Besides EARTH2ORBIT, she cofounded MOONFRONT in San Francisco and Liquifer System Group (LSG) in Vienna, Austria. The first two companies are no longer active, but Liquifer System Group is still in business.
LSG is a revolutionary company that combines the expertise of experts from various fields.
- Space travel
With a large talent pool, Dr. Mohanty wishes to advance the aerospace architecture and design field. Besides potentially designing habitable structures for other planets or moons, LSG’s technologies can also help humans improve sustainable living standards.
Of course, LSG’s products include those for living in space besides on planets and celestial bodies.
Looking at LSG’s services page, you can see that the company offers a diverse range of products.
- Synthetic biology
- Autonomous and cooperative robotics
Exploring the frontiers of space is highly challenging and full of unknown factors, but Dr. Mohanty knows that pooling knowledge is the optimal way to create breakthroughs.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Chris Newlands is a highly successful technology entrepreneur in the U.K. who intends to combine technological growth with sustainability and conscientious approaches. Before he went into this line of work, Newlands served in the Royal Navy.
After his military service, Newlands worked for 30 years in financial services. During this long career, he was a successful Chartered Financial Planner. Nevertheless, he wanted to delve into the space industry in some way.
With long and hard work, Newlands would conceive and launch Spelfie, resulting from years of user-generated content and real-time satellite imaging. But, while we take selfies with smartphones, Spelfie is much more than that.
Imagine taking a “spelfie” (a selfie from space) with a camera 400 miles away in space. That’s what Spelfie is, though it’s not powerful enough to get your smiling face on camera. Instead, the app uses cameras mounted on Airbus observation satellites for the task.
Spelfie was first unveiled when the app took a picture of a large group forming the words “Act Now” on a beach. These Balinese from Indonesia wanted to raise awareness of plastic pollution, and Spelfie helped them do just that.
Though the app is free, scheduling a shoot requires funds and communication. Furthermore, the satellites must be in a position to take these spelfies. In addition, weather conditions may mess up the image, so there are other considerations to keep in mind.
Today, Spelfie is only reserved for significant events and other functions designed to reach the global community.
Spelfie also led to the Space-to-Consumer (S2C) business model. The app combines User Generated Content with satellites, and Newlands obtained a U.S. patent for it in 2021.
Newlands envisioned S2C as a new group of strategies to change the way humans use pictures of the Earth, with space as the medium. Since its inception, Newlands has been planning to send many observation satellites around the Earth’s orbit and provide an enduring vision of every possible spot on the planet. It will revolutionize the relationship between us and satellites.
The benefits of S2C include social, climate, and commercial opportunities. In the future, our smartphones may always be connected to space—which will likely only take less than a decade with space technology’s improvement.
With Spelfie as the prototype, S2C bringing us constant, real-time imagery can help us make informed decisions sooner. Newlands believes the satellite’s real-time imagery can be sent to first responders immediately instead of acting hours after a disaster, like in the case of landslides or earthquakes. The live coverage will help them plan sooner and even adapt on the fly.
There’s also the possibility of locating missing children or adults caught in disasters and maximizing their chances of survival.
Even with this much coverage, Newlands assures people that there won’t be any privacy concerns.
Those who follow the launch industry will surely know of Peter Beck, New Zealand’s foremost space entrepreneur. While the tiny nation of New Zealand doesn’t seem too inspiring for the space industry, some are still surprised to hear about a launch site on the Mahia Peninsula. That’s from where Peter Beck’s company, Rocket Lab, usually sends its creations into orbit.
Named Launch Site 1, this facility is the world’s only private orbital launch range.
For his whole life, Beck had dreamed of space flight. Dreams are crucial for success, but Beck developed numerous talents that suit the fledgling space and launch industry. He can articulate a vision and execute it, raising the necessary funds and leading a team of loyal engineers to success.
Rocket Lab’s first rocket was the Ātea-1, developed in 2009. Beck’s success with this rocket made Rocket Lab the first private company in the Southern Hemisphere to send spacecraft into space. But the company didn’t stop there.
A few more years passed until 2018 when Beck completed Electron. It is currently the only launch vehicle worldwide made of carbon composite. Its engine is also the first 3D-printed electric turbopump-fed engine. Finally, after five years of development, Electron launched successfully.
Today, Electron rockets are still launched to deliver payloads. The latest successful mission of this writing was June 28, 2022. These missions were mostly given humorous names.
- It’s a Test
- Still Testing
- Make It Rain
- Look, Ma, No Hands
- Don’t Stop Me Now
- Pics Or It Didn’t Happen
- Running Out Of Toes
The last one is the most recent launch mission, which NASA and Advanced Space ordered.
Electron is a relatively small rocket, but Beck has newer plans for Rocket Lab.
Currently in development is the Neutron rocket, which is at least twice the size of its older sibling, Electron. Neutron is slated to deliver payloads for establishing mega constellation satellites. Measuring 131 feet in height, it can carry more satellites for mass deployment.
Besides researching rockets, Beck sometimes spends time delivering speeches and imparts guidance to aspiring entrepreneurs. In addition, he has been known to introduce up-and-comers in New Zealand to the public.
While not entirely successful, Beck also launched the Humanity Star, a highly reflective satellite that functioned as a beacon of hope. Sadly, its hollow design made it drop back to the surface too soon.
Beck’s efforts haven’t stopped yet, and you can count on Rocket Lab to make more technological breakthroughs in the space and launch industry.
With a net worth of $135.5 billion, Jeff Bezos is among the wealthiest people on the planet. He founded Amazon in 1994 and owns the Washington Post and Blue Origin. It’s the latter company we’ll delve into.
Bezos was already a corporate magnate when he founded Blue Origin. He was busy with Amazon during this time but had long expressed interest in going into space travel and even human life outside Earth. The company was incorporated in 2000, but it took another five years for Blue Origin to announce its first program, New Shepard, named after Astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. The project aims to make suborbital, human-safe vehicles for tourism and research a reality.
In 2006, Goddard, a developmental rocket, was developed but didn’t go anywhere. However, development and testing went on. Between these years, NASA awarded Blue Origin $22 million as part of the Commercial Crew Program.
There was a New Shepard test flight in 2011, but it exploded. The following year, Blue Origin launched another New Shepard capsule, which managed to reach 2,307 feet and descend by parachute. Finally, in 2015, tests with the propulsion module and space passenger capsule began, and the booster made it back from space in a successful landing.
New Shepard first carried private passengers in 2021. The space travelers were Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos, Wally Funk, and Oliver Daemen. Jeff Bezos became the second individual in history to personally test his own company’s spaceflight technologies.
Another flight even had William Shatner on board. The actor who portrayed Captain James T. Kirk for the first Star Trek series, Shatner, was 90 years old in 2021. So he would again help Blue Origin make history by being the oldest person to reach space.
Today, New Shepard continues to carry passengers and satellites into space.
The New Glenn rocket by Blue Origin is still in development. However, as a larger rocket, it’s designed to be reusable and carry more passengers and payloads. New Glenn is named after Astronaut John Glenn, the first American in orbit.
Blue Moon is a lunar lander designed to fly on the New Glenn rocket. Blue Origin aims to put Americans on the moon again by 2024.
While Blue Origin’s projects take a while to come into being, the company led by Jeff Bezos hasn’t given up at all. Blue Origin remains one of the strongest players in the space industry.
Sir Richard Branson
Sir Richard Branson was the first space entrepreneur to test his own company’s creation, beating Jeff Bezos by around a week, and Elon Musk, who has yet to do so as of this writing. Branson’s story is one of success and hard work.
As a high school dropout, he would join the magazine called Student. In the 1960s, he formed Virgin Mail Order Records and later the first British discount record store. Virgin Records was born in 1973 to spread punk and new wave music. The Virgin conglomerate would become among the largest private companies in the U.K., comprising 100 businesses in varying sectors and fields.
By this time, Branson had enough funds to delve into the aerospace industry, beginning with an airline he renamed Virgin Atlantic Airways. Virgin Records was sold in 1992 to raise money for his space program. In 2004, Branson founded Virgin Galactic, a way to make his dream of flying to space come true. Virgin Galactic is geared toward the space tourism industry.
In 2014, test flights resulted in the tragic death of a pilot, but the company bounced back and launched SpaceShipTwo (SS2). This successful flight had a passenger, the chief astronaut instructor. With more tests succeeding, Branson knew it was time.
The Virgin Galactic space plane Unity was prepared for flight in 2021, launching from Spaceport America, New Mexico. As the carrier ship brought Unity to the target height, Unity was detached and carried Branson and the crew into space. They experienced weightlessness.
They remained weightless for a few minutes. Unity would then return to the spaceport. Elated, Branson was beyond giddy and ecstatic because he had realized his dream.
Today, Virgin Galactic sells tickets for people to fly into space as Branson did. However, that’s not all, as it has signed a contract with NASA to provide private astronaut training.
These private astronauts will receive proper training to prepare for a life-changing experience. They’ll also be given custom-fitted spacesuits and boots made by Under Armour. Becoming a Virgin Galactic astronaut also has many benefits as you receive training. Members get to stay in Spaceport America and bring three guests. They’ll have access to amenities and exciting activities as well. Some events and perks are even locked behind memberships.
Due to supply chain and labor issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, commercial flights are currently postponed to 2023.
Sir Richard Branson is still pushing for Virgin Galactic to be a significant player in the space tourism industry. While he faces Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk as competitors, his dream of making space more accessible still lives.
Besides toying with the idea of owning Twitter, making polarizing tweets, and owning Tesla, Elon Musk is the founder of SpaceX. He is also the wealthiest person on Earth as of June 2022, surpassing Jeff Bezos in 2021. With his incredible sense of business, it’s no wonder he decided to join the space race.
Musk was born in South Africa and studied in Canada and the U.S. When he was 24, he left university to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams. He and his brother founded X.com in 1995, now known as PayPal.
SpaceX was founded in 2002, with Musk spending $100 million. He won contracts with NASA and the U.S. Air Force to design rockets. In 2004, he also invested in and later became CEO of Tesla Motors.
The contracts with NASA culminated in the development of the Falcon 9 rocket. This reusable rocket is designed to send payloads into space, specifically satellites. With a reusable engine and other components, the costs of launching are driven down compared to single-use rockets.
Falcon 9 has had an impressive track record since the first launches, and it has accumulated more than 160 flights, though not all are from the same rocket. Instead, the payloads are from government or private clients, including military and weather satellites. With a successful record, Falcon 9 remains the most effective reusable rocket to date.
Musk is also developing a larger model called Falcon Heavy. Falcon Heavy is the world’s most powerful rocket and can lift 37,040 pounds of payload to Mars. For a standard low-Earth orbit launch, the payload reaches 140,660 pounds. However, while Falcon Heavy has launched successfully, several of its boosters have failed at one time or another.
Starship is SpaceX’s fully reusable spacecraft. It managed to complete several high-altitude test flights from Starbase. Its purpose is to carry passengers and cargo to Earth’s orbit, the moon, and even Mars one day.
In 2020, the U.S. was able to send its own astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) thanks to SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. Dragon isn’t designed to fly as far as Starship is, but it’s convenient for missions up to the ISS or slightly beyond that distance.
SpaceX’s space tourism plans aren’t as far ahead as Virgin Galactic’s, but a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon capsule sent three businessmen to the ISS in 2022.
Musk’s dreams of spaceflight don’t end with the Moon or ISS. He wants to eventually colonize Mars, though that goal is still far away. Despite this, there’s no stopping the eccentric businessman.
Even after disclosing his Asperger’s syndrome, Musk has been subject to criticism and is a polarizing figure. His sometimes unhinged humor and actions, like smoking marijuana on a podcast, have only divided opinions on him more.
Despite this, critics don’t deny his incredible talent for business. Musk started from zero and made his billions through hard work.
Rockets are sensitive devices and need extreme attention to detail, but that never stopped Tim Ellis, the co-founder, and CEO of Relativity Space. Before this, he worked for Blue Origin as a Propulsion Development Engineer. Ellis is a crucial member of the launch industry, with an M.S. in Aerospace Engineering.
Ellis founded Relativity Space with Jordan Noone, who now serves as CTO. Relativity made waves by constructing a completely autonomous rocket factory. The factory uses machine learning, software, and robotics to 3D-print metallic parts for the rockets. They’ve even been launched into space, revolutionizing 60 years of aerospace manufacturing.
The experience in Blue Origin, combined with Ellis being exposed to Elon Musk’s SpaceX vision and Falcon rockets, prompted him to develop his Terran 1 rocket. Terran 1 can start as raw material and become a rocket within 60 days. Thanks to the incredible technology, Relativity Space uses 100 times fewer parts and has less risk of failure during launch.
With a payload of up to 1,250 kilograms to low-Earth orbit around 185 kilometers from the surface, Terran 1 is powered by Aeon engines, also designed by Relativity Space. These engines run on liquid nitrogen and liquid natural gas, even being capable of reaching Mars one day. But, of course, the payload for doing so will be lighter.
Besides Terran 1, Relativity is also working on Terran R. It will be a fully reusable rocket, including its engines and nose cone. Terran R can launch 20,000 kilograms to low-Earth orbit. The same revolutionary manufacturing process and factory will be used to produce these new rockets.
Reusable rockets are known to reduce costs and resources. Along with Blue Origin and SpaceX, Relativity Space intends to pioneer this new type of spacecraft. Terran R will launch in 2024 from Cape Canaveral if the conditions are right and plans go well.
Besides going to Mars, Ellis also has goals for spreading internet access around the planet. Currently, he’s involved with the EDISON Alliance, a group of leaders who banded together to help others access the internet. It was started by the World Economic Forum.
Ellis is known to promote a relentless approach to entrepreneurship. He has powered through despite experiencing many failures, errors, and rejections. It paid off for him before, as he managed to get $500,000 from Mark Cuban with a cold email.
That sum was what Ellis and co-founder Noone used to start Relativity Space. Today, it has accumulated $1.3 billion in funding.
More to Come
These top space entrepreneurs have succeeded through hard work, daring dreams, and help from others. Their technologies and trade secrets have disrupted the space race in one way or another, but what unites them all is a love for exploring the final frontier. As the years pass, there will surely be many others joining them.