Report: What Makes Space Activities Commercial? (FAA 2021)

Source: Ken Davidian, What makes space activities commercial?, Acta Astronautica, Volume 182, 2021, Pages 547-558, ISSN 0094-5765,


Between the 1950s and 1980s, U.S. space sector activities were government-driven, government-sponsored, government-managed, and assisted by the industry-sector. Awareness of non-governmental space activities originated in the 1980s and gained prominence in the early 2000s with the founding of well-funded private companies.

This paper takes an organizational evolution perspective to refine what is meant by “commercial” space markets and activities and compares the results to previous discussions offered by space community authors. From an organization theory perspective, the three primary forces of the evolution change model (variation, selection, and retention) provide a framework for renewed commercial space activity discussions. Together, the strength of these three forces can indicate how “commercial” a market is.

Two case examples are presented to illustrate application of this framework: the U.S. space race era activities during the 1960s, and the current space tourism market. Despite competitions for various contracts awarded to industry sector firms, the Apollo program was clearly government-driven, and was not “commercial” to any significant extent. The current space tourism market is clearly considered “commercial,” but with qualifications.

Conclusions from this review include the appropriate levels of analysis to discuss space market characteristics, a comparative analysis of the “commercial” activities of the U.S. space race era and the current space tourism, the inference of proxies for estimating the strength of the three evolution model forces, and a caution about the accuracy of “commercial” market forecasts.