Art by Emily Bao.
Ever since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, launching objects into the unknown depths of space has mainly been the domain of large government agencies. However, that’s not necessarily the case anymore. In the past few decades, independent space companies have proven their ability to compete with, and at times surpass, their governmental counterparts.
While there are dozens of private aeronautics companies in the market today, there is no better example of this than SpaceX. Founded in 2002, SpaceX is a private company based in Hawthorne, California under the direction of Elon Musk. Besides being the CEO, CTO, and chief designer of SpaceX, Musk is known for being the self-proclaimed “Technoking of Tesla” as well as the co-founder of The Boring Company, Neuralink, and OpenAI.
SpaceX currently manufactures the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles, several rocket engines, Dragon spacecraft, and Starlink satellites. According to its mission statement, SpaceX was founded “to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” Some of SpaceX’s many achievements include launching the first privately funded liquid-propellant rocket to orbit (Falcon 1 in 2008), sending the first privately developed spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) with the Dragon in 2012, achieving the first vertical takeoff and vertical landing for an orbital rocket (Falcon 9 in 2015), being the first to reuse an orbital rocket (Falcon 9 in 2017), and most recently, being the first private company to send astronauts to orbit and to the ISS (SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 and SpaceX Crew-1 missions in 2020). The company is currently working towards sending the first manned mission to Mars as soon as 2026.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), on the other hand, is an agency of the United States federal government with multiple locations spread throughout the country. As a government administration, NASA is funded by taxpayers and reports to the executive branch, with an administrator nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate in a process similar to that of the appointment of cabinet officials. The agency was established in 1958 to succeed the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957. Since then, most US space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo program (1961-1975), Landsat satellite program (1972), Voyager program (1977), Hubble Space Telescope (1990-present), New Horizons probe (2006), and the landing of the Perseverance Rover on Mars earlier this year (2021).
However, despite these many accomplishments, NASA has faced its fair share of turmoil. The space agency’s budget—and popularity—peaked in the 1960s during the Apollo program. At that time, it was running a monumental project to put a man on the Moon that had the near-universal support of Americans. However, after the United States won the race to the Moon, space exploration lost political and public support, leading the government to cut its funding from 4.41% of the federal budget to 0.98% in less than ten years. These continued budget cuts, along with safety concerns sparked by the Space Shuttle Columbia and Challenger disasters, led to the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program. The Space Shuttle program helped complete the assembly of the ISS and served as NASA’s transportation system, carrying astronauts and cargo to and from orbit. Even though the agency had no alternative launch vehicles, the program officially ended in 2011, leaving the US to rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft instead.
When the termination of the Space Shuttle program was announced in 2004, the United States and the Russian Federation were on rather good terms, making the retirement of the shuttle program a slightly easier decision. However, the geopolitical context has changed since then, with the US and Russia struggling to collaborate and address pressing issues such as nuclear arsenals and constantly in a state of distrust. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, interference with the 2016 US presidential election, and its support of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad have raised tensions with the United States, making this sort of approach a bit less desirable. This is where private companies come into the picture. On May 30, 2020, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the Crew Dragon spacecraft from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley onboard. The mission, dubbed Crew Dragon Demo-2, was the final major test for SpaceX’s crewed spaceflight system to be certified by NASA for operational manned missions to and from the ISS. It was also the first crewed launch to orbit from US soil since the end of NASA’s shuttle program, and demonstrated the realm of possibility born from the collaboration between the private and public sectors.
So, where is the competition in aeronautics? The truth is, there is none. SpaceX and NASA are both accomplished organizations in the field of space exploration, but the similarities largely end there. SpaceX is a for-profit company focused on the commercial opportunities of space, whereas NASA is a taxpayer-funded government entity that pursues scientific discoveries that are rarely directly linked to financial gain. Perceptions that NASA and SpaceX are competing with each other often stem from NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the Moon by 2024. The spacecraft involved are manufactured by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, two private space companies that are a couple of SpaceX’s top competitors.
The relationship between NASA and SpaceX (and most private space companies) is more mutualistic than competitive. For private space companies, NASA serves as a source of funding and investment. In 2006, with the end of the shuttle program imminent, NASA began investing in private space companies. In 2008, SpaceX was practically on the verge of bankruptcy and was kept afloat by a multi-billion dollar contract to fly cargo to the ISS for NASA. Besides this, NASA paid for about half the cost to develop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and another $3 billion to aid in the development of the Crew Dragon. Boeing received almost $5 billion to develop the CST-100 Starliner, another spacecraft intended to take astronauts to low-Earth orbit. A manned test flight of the Starliner is expected to be conducted later in 2021. Private space companies have also helped renew interest in spaceflight and exploration, inspiring younger generations to consider pursuing a career in space.
On the other hand, NASA also relies heavily on private space companies. NASA’s sparse funding makes it impossible for the agency to dominate the field as the sole entity. With the growth of these private companies, the government can turn the responsibilities of manufacturing spacecrafts and transporting cargo over to them while NASA focuses on furthering scientific research. There is no business incentive for sending a spacecraft to take pictures of Pluto or landing a rover on Mars to search for ancient water. And yet, human space exploration is still important; it helps us address fundamental questions about our place in the universe and leads to the expansion of technology and the cultivation of cooperative international relationships.
In the end, collaborations between private companies and government agencies bring the best of both worlds to this uncertain and exciting frontier.