NASA and Privatization

By: Ethan Mathieu

On November 15th, at precisely 7:27pm EST, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Rocket launched with NASA astronauts on board. It is yet another example of the private sector working in conjunction with the government to maintain American prestige in space. Space is becoming more about maintaining a bottom line, and less about science for science’s sake. But how did we get here and what does this type of private-public partnership mean for space exploration moving forward?

 

To understand how we got here, we firstly need to understand where we came from. Congress passed legislation in 1957 entailing the creation of the National Aeronautic Space Administration (NASA). It was the height of the Cold War with the USSR, and America was currently in second place in a two-person race. Unwilling to bow to Soviet dominance in any sphere, Kennedy pledged four years later in his “Moon-Shot Speech” to put a man on the moon within the decade. Both nations were racing to out-do the other, but Kennedy hoped to silence all possibility of Soviet superiority with this daring maneuver. While the Soviet’s won the early rounds, putting both a manned and unmanned craft in orbit before the U.S., America would ultimately prevail, sending the Apollo 11 team to the moon in 1969. NASA, being an agency within the government, by-and-large built its own rockets for its own astronauts. How did we end up with NASA astronauts careening into space on a private-sector craft?

 

Well to understand that, we need to first understand the downfall of American interest in space exploration. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the average American citizen, frankly, stopped caring about space. The Space Race was as much about pioneering science innovations as it was beating the USSR, America’s greatest ideological enemy; it fed off competition. Space was just another frontier, akin to Cuba, Vietnam or Korea, where the U.S. populace simply wanted to defeat the Soviets because they were taught to disdain communism. Once their enemy collapsed in on themselves, motivation, and willingness, to fund space efforts dipped. Fund is an important word here. According to Pew Research, 72% of Americans think the U.S. should remain a leader in global space exploration, but few think it should be a priority. Only two-in-ten, despite NASA’s budget being cut over the years, think spending is too low. Americans want to stay in space, but are unwilling to foot the bill. I think you can see where this is going.

 

This segways into the next key change that pushed NASA toward partnering with the private sector. Budget cuts. From the beginning, the creation of NASA was argued to be “too expensive”. Critics lamented that the money would be better spent here on Earth, improving the lives of everyday citizens, rather than launching hunks of metal out of the atmosphere for little more than bragging rights. Ignoring the potential scientific yields, NASA’s budget, peaking in 1969, has become a smaller percent of the federal total every year. President George W. Bush outright ended the Space Shuttle Program in 2004, pledging to return at a later date. NASA’s resources, and the public’s willingness to fund their expensive endeavors, has shrunk. NASA could use any help they can get.

 

So, they partnered with SpaceX. SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, an eccentric multi-billionaire. Musk founded the aerospace company with the chief goal of making commercial spaceflight possible. He wants to make rocket launches the norm, instead of a ground-breaking achievement worthy of gathering the family in front of the television. And, if we’re completely honest, he felt that there was money to be made. Since SpaceX is a private company, we don’t know the full details on how they’ve elevated above the competition, but interviews with Musk have given us a general idea. SpaceX is vertically integrated, meaning that most aspects of its supply chain are produced in-house, with little outsourcing. The corporation also focused on the production of reusable rockets in order to further hem supply costs. 

 

SpaceX has filled the void that NASA, beholden to public whims, cannot. Frankly, it’s a win-win. SpaceX gets a fast-track to world-recognition by riding on the heels of NASA’s credibility. This will certainly come in handy when commercial flight truly becomes a reality; SpaceX already has a leg-up on other companies like Blue Origin or Boeing. It also doesn’t hurt to be cozy with the government, who will have to, you know, approve said actions. They also get plenty of opportunities to test their rockets.

 

NASA, on the other hand, gets to continue launching Americans to space even with their greatly reduced budget, preserving the prestige that most Americans want.

 

So, with this private-public partnership now enshrined with success, what’s next for NASA as a whole?

 

Well, they want to return to the moon, only this time, with even more private support. As part of Project Artemis, three companies, Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX, are currently competing to be the one that creates the human landing system for NASA. SpaceX is believed to be the front runner in receiving this honor due to the rapport they have already built with the government. 

 

At least for now, the private sector will be a part of American space exploration. As the interests of scientific research and national security, however, begin to diverge from commercial pursuits, there’s no way of predicting the longevity of this sort of arrangement. Only time will tell.