SpaceX is often called a "commercial" company and participates in NASA's Commercial Crew Program. In SpaceX's early days, all of SpaceX's revenue came from non-government sources. But today, SpaceX is very similar to other NASA contractors in that it has several government contracts.

How "commercial" is SpaceX as measured by the fraction of historical revenue from non-government contracts to total revenue over the life of the company?

Update: I would be open to other ideas regarding a better metric for being "commercial." Perhaps something like the summation of historical earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) for example.

  • $\begingroup$ This question seem like it could be better written. Additionally it is just barely (if at all) in scope as it deals with a space flight company. There are bunch of company's that contribute to space flight in some way, many of them as their sole line of business. Questions like this on all of them would be ugly. $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2013 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ Edits are encouraged. My question was intended to understand why SpaceX gets labeled differently than other government contractors in the press. It is often called "commercial" while others are not. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Jul 19, 2013 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ Replace "SpaceX" in the question with "Velcro" then with "IBM" and consider how the question(s) would be appropriate for this site. $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2013 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ I am sorry, I don't see your point. The vast majority if IBM's revenue comes from market-driven commercial sources. I guess commercial here refers to the buyer rather than the seller - so perhaps I will alter my question with that in mind. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Jul 19, 2013 at 17:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I am not seeing how the private, commercial or government funding of any active business relates to space exploration. How is the commercial status of Avon, IBM or SpaceX relevant to this site? $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2013 at 20:01

3 Answers 3


Let's take a look at their launch manifest-

Falcon 1- 5 launches

  1. DARPA (US Government) failed
  2. DARPA (US Government) failed
  3. Multiple, primarily NASA/DoD (US Government), but one from Celestis (Private) failed
  4. SpaceX (Really just a demo, not a real satellite)
  5. ATSB (Malaysian government)

Falcon 9 v 1.0 - 5 launches

  1. Test payload only
  2. COTS demo 1 (NASA, US Government)
  3. COTS demo 2-3 (NASA, US Government)
  4. CRS 1 (NASA, US Government)+ ORBCOMM OG2 Prototype (Failed, Commercial)
  5. CRS 2 (NASA, US Government)

So, that totals to the following numbers:

  • 4 successful NASA missions
  • 2 demo missions
  • 1 foreign government
  • 2 failed commercial launces
  • 3 failed DARPA/DOD missions

Bottom line is, almost none of SpaceX's revenue to date has come from commercial companies, it almost all has come from the government. However, if you check the plans for the Falcon 9 v1.1, you will see this (Current (July 19) public manifest, until end of 2013, in the listed launch order:

  1. MDA Corp (Defense Contractor)
  2. SES (Commercial)
  3. Thaicom (Commercial)
  4. COTS 3 (NASA, US Government)
  5. Orbcomm (Commercial)

So there is yet hope that it will turn in to a company that doesn't depend on government to function.

  • $\begingroup$ +1. Nice approach. I think the only thing that needs to be baked in somehow is the amount of equity fronted by private investors. But at least today, they are certainly dependent on government (non-commercial) funding. Having said that, I think Musk can do it someday. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Jul 19, 2013 at 19:46
  • $\begingroup$ Most of the equity originally came from private investors, but the company has been profitable since 2007. Unless there's a source I can't find, it must be coming from government contracts... $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Jul 19, 2013 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ I'm puzzled. I strongly doubt that a launch isn't paid if unsuccessful, now is it? $\endgroup$
    – o0'.
    Apr 24, 2014 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ From my experience, you actually do pay for a launch if not successful, although most people purchase insurance to re-launch in the event of a launch failure. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Apr 24, 2014 at 13:18

It is entirely commercial:

Commercial: prepared, done, or acting with sole or chief emphasis on salability, profit, or success: a commercial product;

From SpaceX's perspective it doesn't matter where the contracts come from, they are a commercial, profit-making organisation.

You can't redefine commercial to exclude revenue from a particular slice of the market.

  • $\begingroup$ How is that different from any other NASA contractor involved in the programs that are not labelled "commercial" then? $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Jul 19, 2013 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Erik the type of contract. NASA needs cargo to the ISS. Tenders a request, SpaceX submits, competes, fulfills it. Boeing/LockMart typically build what NASA wants to their spec, to NASA's design. Which is also commercial, but the core difference may just be in the type of contracting and how the service is purchased. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Jul 19, 2013 at 13:56
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I think you are closer with the idea of fixed price vs. cost-plus contracting. But I disagree that either is "commercial." Perhaps my question would be better phrased simply as to how much is privately funded vs. publicly funded since SpaceX often labels themselves "private" space. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Jul 19, 2013 at 14:03

Remove government funding from most of our defense related "private" concerns and you'd have nothing left. So, I opine that SpaceX is probably more a commercial enterprise than most of our defense industry.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Space Exploration! This is not really an answer to the question presented at the top of the page, it's at best an opinion stating that it's more commercial than what isn't at all. Please see if you could edit your answer to expand on it, and preferably provide some citations for your claims. As a Q&A website, all the answers to the question are supposed to answer it in part or preferably in whole, and not present new arguments as new discussion points, like it might be appropriate in online forums. That, we're not. More is explained in About and Help center, in particular the How to Answer page. $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    Apr 21, 2014 at 16:42

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