As a space enthusiast and NASA engineer, I am thrilled by the progress of SpaceX and other non-traditional private space companies. Their achievements in reducing cost to LEO are important and invaluable. I hope the growing success of private space will permit NASA to dedicate its resources (and personnel) to more distant and exciting destinations, where true exploration beckons us. Having said that, much of what I perceive as the public’s understanding of these companies and their role is disheartening. For example, I have noticed a broad consensus, among a significant block of the voting public, that these entities represent a nail-in-the-coffin for a dying NASA. Some see SpaceX as proof positive of the superiority of private corporations over big government agencies. This view could not be more divorced from reality, and in this article I hope to illuminate a few things.
First, SpaceX is hardly a free-market private enterprise, the way certain libertarian-leaning observers (and most of the media) portray it to be. It is overwhelmingly a NASA supplier and sub-contractor. $4.2 billion of its $10 billion valuation (in 2015) consists of NASA contracts.1 However, this is not a bad thing, and certainly not new. Private companies have been instrumental in building and contributing to NASA spacecraft from the very beginning. Martin-Marietta built the Apollo LEM, and traditional aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed-Martin have had a role in just about every modern space mission. The latter built the Atlas booster, which has had over 100 consecutive launches without a single failure.2 Although these companies garner contracts from a variety of sources, their space sectors ultimately derive funds from the taxpaying public.
Sure, we are slowly developing true free-market business in space. Examples include communication and weather satellites, geolocating, and remote sensing. In the not so distant future we may add asteroid mining, power generation, and tourism. But such activities are starkly different than science-driven exploration. This fundamental endeavor will continue to be the role of government (of the people), simply because there is no sensible ‘for-profit’ model in space exploration; nor basic scientific research in general. Our true exploratory ventures in space continue to be, primarily, publicly funded. And it is this activity which makes any business possible, including the very existence of SpaceX and Blue Origin. Generally, true space exploration concedes a terrible business model. One which is fraught with high-risk, and little short-term monetary gain. Unfortunately, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos sometimes contradict this reality. Recently, Bezos stated his belief that “ultimately, all of our space endeavors should be profitable.”3 I cringe when reading such statements.
But alas, we do not explore for monetary gain, or any other capitalistic motivation. We explore because we are human, for many of the same reasons we write poetry and ponder the possible existence of parallel universes. SpaceX and other companies are playing an important and exciting role, but let’s keep things in perspective. None is usurping NASA, nor out performing. The American space program continues to thrive, and is undoubtedly the greatest such program on Earth.