Ranking the Players In the Private Race to Space

Who's on top? Find out in our subjective ranking of the crowded field of competitors gunning for space

The bustling private-space industry is full of big-dreaming, thrifty innovators. Here we've ranked 15 of the most serious contenders in order of their progress toward the goal of bringing cargo and human passengers to space.

In our subjective ranking, the companies furthest along appear first in the list, weighted with consideration for their ultimate goal: suborbit, orbit, the moon or beyond.

And for a more in-depth look, take a sneak peak at our January issue cover story here.

Virgin Galactic
Billionaire owner Richard Branson plans test flights of the company’s eight-person rocket ship, SpaceShipTwo, this year, with commercial launches set for next year. Ultimate Destination: Orbit
Payload: Humans & Cargo
virgingalactic.com
SpaceX
PayPal co-founder Elon Musk's venture boasts the first privately funded rocket to reach orbit and a $1.6-billion NASA contract to resupply the International Space Station. Here, the SpaceX Falcon 1 Flight 4 vehicle lifts off from Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll. Ultimate Destination: Orbit
Payload: Humans & Cargo
spacex.com
Orbital Sciences Corp.
This seasoned aerospace company builds small rockets for launching satellites and holds a $1.9-billion NASA contract to resupply the ISS. Seen here, the Launch Abort System Orbital designed and built for NASA's next-gen manned craft, the Orion CEV. Ultimate Destination: Orbit
Payload: Humans & Cargo
Orbital.com
Scaled Composites
Founded by experimental-aircraft designer Burt Rutan in 1982, this once-scrappy company now owned by Northrop Grumman engineered SpaceShipTwo. Ultimate Destination: Orbit
Payload: Humans & Cargo
John B. Carnett
Masten Space Systems
This space start-up won the $1-million Lunar Lander Challenge last November and expects to launch an unmanned suborbital cargo hauler by late next year. Ultimate Destination: Orbit
Payload: Humans & Cargo
Courtesy of mastenspace via Flickr
Armadillo Aerospace
Computer game developer John Carmack’s space firm, which took second place in the Lunar Lander Challenge, aims to put a manned craft into suborbit by next year. Ultimate Destination: Suborbit
Payload: Humans & Cargo
armadilloaerospace.com
Planetary Society
After a botched launch in 2005, this nonprofit space organization will make a second bid to put an unmanned solar sail, named LightSail-1, into orbit this year. Ultimate Destination: Beyond the moon
Payload: Cargo
Planetary.org
Bigelow Aerospace
Billionaire Robert Bigelow’s venture has put two small, unmanned prototypes of inflatable space hotels into orbit, and it plans to launch a habitable version in 2014. Former NASA engineer William Schneider, seen here, designed the modules that Bigelow hopes will constitute the world’s first orbital hotel. Ultimate Destination: Orbit
Payload: Humans & Cargo
John B. Carnett
XCOR Aerospace
This small California-based aerospace company claims America’s first rocket-powered airplane. It’s now developing a two-seat reusable suborbital tourist ship called Lynx. Ultimate Destination: Orbit
Payload: Humans & Cargo
XCOR.com
Blue Origin
Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’s top-secret side project’s gumdrop-shaped ship, designed for vertical takeoffs and landings, is expected to put people in suborbit by 2012. Ultimate Destination: Suborbit
Payload: Humans & Cargo
BlueOrigin.com
Ad Astra Rocket Co.
Retired astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz’s company plans to test a 200-kilowatt plasma rocket, designed for deep-space flight, on the ISS in late 2013. Ultimate Destination: Beyond the moon
Payload: Humans & Cargo
AdAstraRocket.com
Interorbital Systems
Husband-wife duo Roderick and Randa Milliron’s start-up is building rockets to carry satellites into orbit; a first launch is expected this year. Ultimate Destination: The moon
Payload: Humans & Cargo
ComputerWeekly.com
ARCA
This Romanian nonprofit is building a suborbital vehicle called Stabilo. A hot-air balloon will launch the craft to 72,000 feet, and then a tractor engine will blast a crew capsule into space. Ultimate Destination: The moon
Payload: Humans & Cargo
Wikipedia.com
Da Vinci Project/The Dreamspace Group
The Canadian firm plans to unveil a single-seat suborbital spacecraft this year, followed by a three-person craft in 2012. Ultimate Destination: Suborbit
Payload: Humans & Cargo
DaVinciProject.com
Space Adventures
Instead of building ships and rockets, this tourism outfit brokers rides to the ISS aboard a Russian Soyuz. Seen here, multi-mission space tourist Charles Simonyi aboard the ISS. Ultimate Destination: The moon
Payload: Humans
SpaceAdventures.com