America’s Rocket Renaissance

rutan_talkBy Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

During recent public talks, Scaled Composites Founder Burt Rutan has bemoaned the lack of recent rocket development in the United States. After the initial burst of creativity in the 1950’s and 1960’s, decades went by with very few new rockets being developed. He has also pointed to Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipTwo, SpaceX’s Dragon and Stratolaunch Systems air-launch project (which he worked on for 20 years) as the only serious developments in the field at present.

My first thought was: Burt’s wrong. There’s a lot more going on than just that. Including developments just down the flight line in Mojave that he somehow fails to mention. And my second thought was: well, just how wrong is Burt, exactly?

A lot, it turns out.

Going through the voluminous Parabolic Arc archives, I discovered that we’re in the midst of a renaissance in rocketry and spacecraft development in the United States. The list of project under active development or already flying includes heavy-lift rockets, deep-space exploration craft, orbital taxis, private space stations, suborbital tourism and research vehicles, and dedicated nano-sat launchers.

Not all of these programs will succeed, of course, but if enough of them do, then the U.S. will once again have a vibrant and competitive launch industry. And the nation will have multiple options for sending humans to space, where there will be multiple destinations for them to visit.

The tables below show all the new projects that are either in active development or have reached flight in recent years.  If I’ve missed any, please let me know and I’ll add them to the tables.

UPDATES: Revised on Jan. 4 to include the X-37A spacecraft (Boeing/U.S. Air Force) and the P-18D suborbital launch vehicle (Garvey Spaceflight Corporation). Also updated information on the GOLauncher 1 (suborbital) and GOLauncher 2 (orbital) launch vehicles. Thanks to readers for the recommendations and additional information.

Revised on Jan. 5 to include commercial deep space programs now being planned.

Revised on Jan. 6 to include SpaceX Grasshopper.


& Booster
& Supporting Agency
 Passengers/ Occupants
 First Crewed Flight
cst100_smCST-100 – Atlas VBoeing & ULA/NASA 72015
or 2016
 dragon_smDragon – Falcon 9SpaceX/NASA 72015
 dreamchaser_smDream Chaser – Atlas VSierra Nevada Corporation & ULA/NASA 7 2016
 orion_smOrion – Space Launch SystemLockheed Martin, Boeing & ATK/NASA42021
blue_origin_orbital_smOrbital Vehicle — Atlas V (Later Blue Origin Reusable Rocket)Blue Origin & ULA/NASA7Unknown
bigelow_smBA330 Space StationBigelow Aerospace
(with Boeing and SpaceX crew partnerships)
or 2017


& Crew
ss2_smSpaceShipTwoScaled Composites8 2013
Lynx_smLynxXCOR Aerospace2 2013
armadillo_suborbital_smHyperionArmadillo Aerospace & Space Adventures2Unknown
new_shepard_smNew ShepardBlue Origin4 Unknown



& Booster
& Supporting Agency
Payload to ISS
First Flight
dragon_smDragon – Falcon 9SpaceX/NASA 6,000 kg (13,228 lbs) up-mass;
3,000 kg (6,614 lbs) down-mass
 Cygnus_smCygnus – AntaresOrbital Sciences Corporation/NASA2,000 kg Standard
2,700 kg Enhanced
x-37b_smX-37B – Atlas VBoeing & ULA/U.S. Air ForceUnknown2010


& Supporting Agency
Payload to
Payload to GTOFirst Flight(s)

Heavy Lift
SLS_smSpace Launch SystemLockheed Martin, Boeing & ATK/NASA70 MT
& 130 MT
falcon-heavy__1Falcon HeavySpaceX53 MT12 MT
(26,460 lbs.)
2013 or 2014

Medium Lift
falcon9_smFalcon 9SpaceX/NASA13,150 kg (29,000 lbs.)4,850 kg (10,692 lbs.) 2010
Antares_smAntaresOrbital Sciences Corporation/ NASA 5,000 kg (11,000 lbs.) 2013
stratolaunch_smStratolaunchScaled Composites, Dynetics & Orbital Sciences Corp. 6,100 kg (13,500 lbs.) 2016
athena_smAthena Ic, IIcATK & Lockheed Martinup to 1,712 kg
(3,775 lbs.)

Small, Nano and Micro Satellite Launchers
SPARK_smSuper Strypi (a.k.a., SPARK)Aerojet, Sandia National Laboratories & University of Hawaii/DOD Office of Operationally Responsive Space250 kg
(550 lbs.)
 N/A 2013
launcherone_smLauncherOneVirgin Galactic225 kg
(500 lbs.)
cartoon_rocketALASA Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Virgin Galactic, Northrop Grumman, Ventions LLC & Space Information Laboratories LLC/DARPA 45.4 kg
100 lbs.)
N/A Unknown
(55 lbs.)
GO2GOLauncher 2Generation Orbit Launch Services & Space Propulsion Group5 to 30 kg
(11 to 66 lbs.)
 N/A 2018
whittinghill_smMinimum Cost Launch SystemWhittinghill AerospaceNanosats N/A Unknown
 Lynx_sm LynxXCOR Aerospace Microsats N/A 2015 or 2016


BoosterBuilder(s)PayloadsFirst Flight(s)
STIG-smSTIG-A, STIG-B, STIG-III, STIG-V, STIG-VIIArmadillo AerospaceVarious Various
Xombie_smXombie, XogdorMasten Space SystemsVarious Various
Garvey_P18smP-18DGarvey Spacecraft CorporationCubeSats, Nanosats2011
whittinghill_smMinimum Cost Launch VehicleWhittinghill Aerospace Various Unknown
GO1GOLauncher 1Generation Orbit Launch Services & Space Propulsion GroupUp to 100 kg (220 lbs.)2015
Spx_Grasshopper_smGrasshopperSpaceXTest Vehicle2012


Commercial Lunar and Deep Space Programs

moon_wires-smAstrobotic, Team FREDNET, Team Jurban, Moon Express, Omega Envoy, Penn State Lunar Lion Team, Team Phoenicia, Team StellarWin $30 Million Google Lunar X PrizeLunar landers and roversPrize expires Dec. 31, 2015
arkyd_100_smPlanetary ResourcesAsteroid miningArkyd-100, Arkyd-200, Arkyd-3002013 or 2014 (first launches)
lunar_soyuz_smSpace Adventures & EnergiaSpace tourism flight around the moonModified Soyuz transportNLT January 2017
golden_spike_lander-smGolden Spike CompanyHuman landings on moonLunar transportation architecture2020

  • Zeepkist

    I think the Boeing X-37 deserves a place in this list

  • RobH

    Mr. Messier, regard Mr. Rutan’s remarks from an entrepreneurial stance. The bulk of these companies you listed are established (institutional) aerospace firms, with which he clearly enjoys a love-hate relationship with. Personally, it’s my dying wish that he uses his considerable energy and political clout to reinvigorate the homebuilt aircraft industry. We’re where he came from and the folks that will always hero-worship the guy.

  • Andreas P. Bergweiler

    Very good article. Thanks for posting it!

  • NoOne

    Could also mention the efforts of the Google Lunar XPrize teams developing Lunar Landers and Rovers.

  • cui bono

    You could also mention Musk’s MCT – when we know what it is!

  • Steve

    Doug, I heard Burt say something quite different. He was frustrated at our actual accomplishments over the past several decades vs. his perception of what our true potential could have been given the right leadership; especially government leadership. And I agree with him wholeheartedly. The accomplishments you listed are in spite of the government not because of it. I will give some credit for the rather recent minor sum of money invested in commercial space. But direction & goals, rules & regs that make sense, and seed capital are the elements that government could quickly deliver if there truly were leaders in Washington rather than incompetent legislators and bureaucrats.

  • Steve:

    You’re right. Burt said all those things. He was bemoaning both the lack of results and the lack of innovation in the U.S. space program in the decades that followed Apollo. He also has talked about the lack of bold programs like Apollo on the horizon. And I agree with him on a lot of what he says in those areas.

    My point was that there’s a lot going on in terms of new rocket and spacecraft development. The U.S. has identified the problems it has and there are substantial efforts underway to deal with them. Some of it is responding to emerging markets like smallsats and suborbital tourism and research that have developed in the past decade or so. Other parts of that are attempts to forge a more commercial approach to orbital flights.

    I guess where I also disagree with Burt is that I’m less troubled by NASA’s seeming lack of focus or clear goals in deep space. I once asked someone who worked with the Augustine Committee why the moon wasn’t selected as a specific goal. The basic answer is the moon is a gravity well. That’s true both literally and figuratively. A lunar destination quickly becomes a specific program, and a program has offices in places like Huntsville and Houston and Florida, and NASA will spend a quarter century working on that program even as the scale of it shrinks and the costs rise and the original purpose morphs into something different. That’s the lesson of ISS.

    I think what we’re seeing in space is the emergence of a much more competitive and entrepreneurial industry where government will play a different role. That needs to be nurtured in the years ahead so that by the time NASA is ready to go beyond Earth orbit with humans, we’ve got a commercial sector that knows how to make money in space. Those companies will be much better partners for NASA at that point.

    We’re even beginning to see that entrepreneurial drive beyond Earth orbit in companies like Golden Spike and Planetary Resources. They’ve both got a lot of elements of risk, financially and programmatic, so we’ll see how they do. But, the fact they’re being launched is a good sign.

    Burt is missing the entrepreneurial churning that is going on, which I really believe will be a vital precursor to going out beyond Earth orbit again. It’s a period we need to go through. And it may be as innovative, in its own ways, as that first decade or so of the Space Age.

  • RobH:

    Yes, Burt has a love-hate relationship with institutional aerospace firms (along with many other things). Actually, probably more hate than love, Northrop Grumman’s ownership of Scaled notwithstanding.

    That being said, Burt is much more vulnerable to criticism coming from the other direction than is generally understood. The WhiteKnightTwo – SpaceShipTwo program has not been a model of either cost or schedule control. Both Scaled and Virgin were naive and over confident going in. They didn’t know what they didn’t know. Lots of mistakes made. Designing and building a much bigger spaceship (3 times the size) before figuring out the engine. Believing they could easily and quickly scale up a hybrid design that had barely worked for SS1. A lack of safety precautions that cost three men their lives and injured three others. Constantly optimistic schedule claims (albeit, almost entirely from Richard Branson on the VG side).

    My sense is that, if a bigger, more established space company had undertaken a similar project and the thing was this far behind schedule and over budget and had killed three people already, we’d be hearing a lot of criticism from not just Burt but everyone in the NewSpace community. Especially given how much public money, from both New Mexico and Abu Dhabi, has been invested in the venture (about $700 million).

    More fundamentally, I’ve been covering NewSpace for a long time and I’ve heard all the hype and all the rhetoric and all the attacks on Big Rocket. Generally speaking, there’s been a lot more talking than flying. Until that ratio is reversed, people will continue to be quite skeptical of this new approach to things.

  • Steve


    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I can remember long ago, as a teenager, building a Quickie Q2 in a barn with my brother, laying up fiberglass during the winter months (not a great idea to lay fiberglass in the winter but too much excitement). Anyway, I have always admired Burt for his get it done attitude, his ingenuity, and the contagious excitement he spread. Sadly, he now seems a little defeated perhaps by trying endlessly to have a rational conversation with the irrational in DC. I hope the senseless people in DC do not lay waste to the current entrepreneurial spirit in commercial space you describe. I do agree with your comments. Thanks for your great work. I really enjoy following your articles.


  • Garrett Curley

    Great article!

    Deep Space Industries could be added to the list.