IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Private space industry is helping to change the game

"MTP Reports" goes inside the rapidly growing civilian space industry.

Having witnessed the spectacle of billionaires, contest winners, teen socialites — even, soon, "Star Trek" legend William Shatner — launching into space this year, Americans could be forgiven for assuming that the whole venture has simply become a playground for the rich and famous.

But the private space industry isn't just a rivalry between oligarchs. It's also revolutionizing the global economy in ways that may be less obvious. Space tourism is one small piece of a rapidly growing and highly profitable sector.

Led by companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, private companies have driven down launch costs to record lows, making it cheaper and easier to send thousands of satellites into orbit for a wide array of commercial uses.

Workers at Relativity Space, a smaller startup, use 3D printers to manufacture rocket parts piece by piece, fuse them with lasers and then launch them for $12 million a pop. The process, which is designed to speed the typical timeline to manufacture a rocket, can make 95 percent of the parts in 60 days.

"We get paid by people like NASA, the DOD, so, government entities," co-founder and CEO Tim Ellis told "MTP Reports."

"But there's also a huge commercial market that's hundreds of billions of dollars from companies that have telecom satellites," he said.

And, much as NASA technology ended up filtering down to a variety of other uses on Earth, Ellis hopes to use the company's 3D printing methods to solve spaceflight challenges in a variety of ways.

Commercial satellites power imaging software like Google Maps, beam television into homes and help planes and boats stay connected in remote locations. SpaceX's Starlink service is working to provide broadband internet through a network of over 1,700 satellites.

For those who can't afford launches of their own, private companies will sell the use of their satellites to perform a variety of tasks.

Will Marshall, CEO of Planet Labs, sells image surveillance services powered by 200 satellites to businesses, including NBC News, as well as nonprofit and government institutions.

"We've changed the business models, really, so that anyone that wants a picture, we've already taken it of your area," Marshall said.

Private clients use Planet's satellites to track farming conditions across vast areas. Scientists use the data to track climate change in real time and detect changes in emissions from fires and deforestation. A think tank even detected over 100 suspected nuclear silos in China by using Planet's imaging services.

"I think that that's just the new world as it is. It's going to be a more transparent one," Marshall said.

It's a major shift from our old conception of space as largely the purview of superpowers that have poured tens of billions of dollars into space programs to showcase their engineering prowess and push the limits of science and exploration.

Some of that is still going on: China's space agency plans to go to the moon, and the U.S. would like to return. Meanwhile, NASA will probe the origins of the universe with the James Webb Space Telescope, which it plans to launch this year. Such projects cost billions, but the benefits are primarily better for scientific research, and they boost national pride.

"I've never heard of any NASA satellite that generates revenue, OK?" Bill Ochs, who oversees the Webb project, said with a laugh. "We're nonprofit. Big time."

The old romantic notion of space as the final frontier is also driving its entrepreneurs, who grew up reading sci-fi novels and idolizing astronauts. Like Musk, Ellis said his ultimate goal is to spearhead a flight to Mars. Bezos, whose space company, Blue Origins, is Ellis' former employer, envisions moving all heavy manufacturing into orbital stations.

Meanwhile, there's plenty of money to be made here on Earth.

To learn more about commercial spaceflight and watch exclusive interviews with industry leaders, check out this week's episode of "MTP Reports" on Peacock.