Mainstream Space Travel Is Looking Up

As commercial spaceflight becomes more prevalent and less expensive, significant strides are being made regarding social, business and environmental impacts. That being said, there’s quite a bit on the horizon for privatized space travel and deep space exploration.

Human beings have yearned to explore space for as long as they have gazed up at the sky. Getting trained astronauts and cosmonauts into space in a sustainable and scalable manner has proven to be a difficult challenge for more than five decades. Making commercial space tourism possible for the masses will also be challenging — but this dream has edged closer to reality in recent years.

As part of the global space tourism market, companies already are offering everything from astronaut boot camps to zero-gravity flights. As public interest in space travel grows, aerospace companies SpaceX, headquartered in California and led by Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Blue Origin, headquartered in Washington and owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, are making a significant impact. When it comes to commercial spaceflight, both companies regularly send small teams of astronauts and civilians into space.

Without question, aside from overcoming the technical challenges, there are other critical issues to address, such as the safety and security of travelers and how space travel fits into the mix of global environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) standards and policies. Other considerations include the impact of space waste on travel, how the commercial space sector should be regulated, the physical effects of space travel on the human body, and the psychological toll of being a world away from the familiar. As these issues continue to be investigated, there are those who dream about one day signing up to go to space and being among the first-ever to travel beyond Earth’s orbit.

“The holy grail of air and space transport is mainstream point-to-point travel with the idea that you could launch on one side of the world and get somewhere else on the other side of the globe within a few hours or travel to a destination in space in less than a day’s time,” says Richard Pruss, regional practice manager at Burns & McDonnell who specializes in the space market. “Both will one day be possible, and we are at an interesting inflection point as far as desire, commitment and capabilities.”

The Business of Space

The Space Foundation reports private companies funded approximately 90% of all spacecraft launches in 2022. This includes the first completely private launch to the International Space Station (ISS) by SpaceX and Houston-based Axiom Space in April 2022, a critical first step toward Axiom’s goal of developing the world’s first commercial space station.

Perhaps one of the most recent revolutionary moves in space travel is the development of reusable spacecraft that sometimes feature vertical landing capabilities. SpaceX has the Falcon 9 with eyes on the creation of the Starship, a reusable vehicle that is projected to travel as far as Mars and have the capability to be refueled in orbit. Blue Origin has the New Shepard and New Glenn, which can be reused up to 25 times. Virgin Galactic, based in the United Kingdom and founded by Richard Branson, has its own reusable vehicle that is launched from the underside of a “mothership” and lands like an airplane.

These crafts’ reusable features could allow the companies to launch more spacecraft into orbit more frequently and at a lower cost. If these rockets were mass-produced and widely used, space travel could, with time, become like air travel with people traveling regularly into space.

Engineering and construction firms are playing a critical role in building the facilities needed to make sure space travel progresses. While space travel is expensive now, the goal is to get costs down. In the meantime, plans are underway to make the most of where we are today — continuing to take astronauts and civilians to the ISS and the Kármán line, which is 62 miles above Earth’s surface and considered the edge of Earth’s atmosphere.

Some entities are examining the potential for developing plush resorts and training camps at which travelers can stay in the days prior to taking flight. At these “space resorts,” travelers would learn how to handle the effects of flight, both physically and mentally, and be trained in safety best practices. As space travel picks up, space-related accommodations will improve both on the ground and in space. Take, for example, Orbital Assembly Corp., a manufacturing company whose goal is to help humanity “work, play and thrive in space” by creating the first space station with gravity.

“While the ultimate goal of the massive investment in space development is point-to-point travel, the midterm goal is to get the price point down significantly so that more citizens can enjoy this mode of transportation,” says Josh Foerschler, project development lead for aerospace and defense markets at Burns & McDonnell. “For that to happen, the space industry would have to increase vehicle production rates while making a paramount commitment to safety. Additionally, studies, governmental regulations and funding will be needed to grow and support a viable space economy.”

According to the Space Foundation’s 2022 Q2 Space Report, the space economy grew at its fastest rate in years, reaching a record $469 billion in 2021. Of that, $224 billion was from space firms’ products and services. Infrastructure supporting commercial space enterprises totaled another $138 billion. This includes the facilities needed to house the research, tech and manufacturing companies that are advancing our ability to travel to and explore space.

Innovations in this sector over the past several decades have led to advancements in medicine, agriculture, safety and manufacturing, including satellite navigation, water filtration, additive food production and imaging technology. The next generation of space innovation and research could involve the mass production of hardware, spacesuits and other equipment needed for handling space waste, mining asteroids and managing other space activities. Also envisioned are capabilities to create rocket fuel on the moon and growing large quantities of fresh produce in space.

Activity in the space industry is booming, according to The Space Report data from the Space Foundation as of July 2022.


Given the industry’s expansiveness, there are states around the country like Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Texas, Virginia and Washington that are hotbeds of space activity, utilizing a wide breadth of resources, including a large pool of talented, highly educated, high-tech workers. While high levels of space economy activity have developed around these locations — from launchpads to rockets and every component in between — supply chain opportunities and challenges exist across the U.S., including in non-coastal cities.

Take Orizon Aerostructures and three other companies in Kansas, which inked supply contracts with Blue Origin for heavy-lift launch vehicle and engine programs designed to support commercial, civil and national security space missions. Or Star Harbor Academy in Colorado, which aims to be the first publicly accessible spaceflight training facility and is planning for a new campus just outside of Denver. Countless more opportunities like these exist within the space industry.

There is also a multitude of launch and spaceport locations offering opportunities. Houston Spaceport is one such example that houses companies like Intuitive Machines, a Burns & McDonnell client, whose goal is to be the first private company to travel to the moon and land lunar vehicles on it.

Funding and Governing the Space Economy

As space travel continues, more spaceports around the globe will act as primary liftoff points. These ports involve distinct kinds of passenger terminals, cargo hangars and payload processing centers. The facilities will have special needs that in the long term will require funding, regulations, oversight and guidance from organizations like the Federal Aviation Administration, its Commercial Space Transportation branch and NASA.

With private companies focused on getting humans beyond Earth’s atmosphere, NASA can spend more time concentrating on other issues like research, sustainable aviation, addressing climate change, and the further exploration of Mars and places deep in the galaxy. Also on NASA’s agenda is jump-starting a constant human presence in low-Earth orbit (LEO). Starting with the selection of Axiom Space to attach a habitable commercial module — which could be used as a hoteling station — to the ISS, plans are moving toward more frequent commercial trips to space and a steady commercial LEO economy.

To help NASA continue its important work, $30.62 billion was allocated in the federal budget for fiscal year 2022. Additionally, Congress has approved the NASA Authorization Act, giving NASA the direction and additional funds needed to propel future space programs. Some of these include extending the life of the ISS through 2030, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft, and establishing a Moon to Mars program. Regarding traveling to Mars, NASA’s 2022 Artemis 1 trip to the moon — with the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built — will help lay the groundwork for this effort.

So, what role will critical infrastructure and construction (AEC) firms play in the space future?

“Plenty of opportunities exist for companies interested in propelling the space economy forward, and architecture, engineering and construction firms like ours are here to support them,” Pruss says. “While Burns & McDonnell is not designing or constructing rockets, we can build the launch, processing, testing, technology, research and manufacturing facilities needed, as well as construct the hospitality and training spaces.”

“There are a variety of ancillary markets that are part of the space economy, and that’s where AEC firms like ours can help clients make the largest impact,” Pruss says. “The goal is to get thousands of people living and working in space and really creating a thriving space economy. Our job is to make life easier for the companies trying to launch so that they can focus on getting safely beyond Earth’s orbit.”

Foerschler agrees: “I’ve always been interested in space. With private companies playing a big role and technology advancing by leaps and bounds, this is an exciting time to be involved in the space economy. Mainstream space travel is not going to happen overnight. It could take decades, but we will get there. It will require a global mix of public, private and governmental cooperation, but mainstream travel into space is definitely on the horizon.”

Thought Leaders

Josh Foerschler

Aerospace, Defense and Space Lead for Project Development

Richard Pruss

Regional Practice Manager
Burns & McDonnell