Privatizing Space – Boeing and SpaceX Earn Massive NASA Contracts

This past September, NASA announced two landmark contracts with domestic aerospace firms. The two largest, and arguably greatest innovators in space technology over the past decade, Boeing and SpaceX, walked away with $6.8 billion dollars to finalize their capsules and thruster systems so that they may provide transport to the International Space Station (ISS) for US Astronauts by 2017. However, September’s announcement more than just stepped up NASA’s current space programs, it signaled an unprecedented move to privatize the space industry.

Private US aerospace companies were eager to express their approval of these latest contracts, which vastly expanded earlier NASA initiatives. Earlier on in 2009, NASA launched its Commercial Crew Program (CCP) in an effort to “stimulate the private sector to develop and demonstrate human spaceflight capabilities that could ultimately lead to the availability of commercial human spaceflight services.” Major players such as Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada Corporation have been beneficiaries of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, each receiving funding in the realm of $500 million for the initiative.

The impetus behind this latest move has its roots back in 2011 when the United States government terminated the shuttle program. Since then, US astronauts’ only option for reaching the International Space Station has been to catch a ride with the Russians, an alternative that is far from perfect. The funding cuts handed down from Congress hardly cover the hefty price tag of $71 million a seat that the Russians are garnering. From the very onset, the steep price tag proved to be an issue and spurred NASA to investigate other options. Furthermore, along with these fiscal motivations, growing tension between the United States and Russia, recently exemplified by the animosity over Ukraine, provided growing momentum behind the motivation to return the space industry to US soil.

The decision to hand over space travel to the private sector is nothing short of a clear course change for NASA that many argue is a change in the right direction In these September contracts, Chicago based Boeing and Los Angeles based SpaceX, walked away with a $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion respectively. The funds awarded are earmarked for certification and final development of each company’s respective capsules: Dragon for SpaceX and CST-100 for Boeing. Both Boeing and SpaceX have proven that they can innovate and NASA believes that the competition between the firms will serve to alter the face of spaceflight.

In a recent interview, SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk, said that these contracts are absolutely about driving down costs and eliminating the United States dependency on Russia. As a relative newcomer to the field, Musk also pointed out that this contract helped secure a spot for SpaceX as a “key anchor tenant” in NASA’s plans for the future. NASA’s new initiative is a crucial next step for pioneering companies like SpaceX and will allow them to prove themselves as top innovators. The key, Elon Musk believes, is that you’ve got to be committed, especially when you’re competing with the likes of Boeing, who plans on bringing aboard Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin to help with new rocketry. As NASA turns its attention towards deeper space missions to Mars and asteroids, the companies are investing for the long run.

Mr. Musk, along with both NASA and other private aerospace firms, seem to have their focus on both the long term and the big picture. After all, the long game is the nature of the space industry. Nothing happens overnight and nothing is cheap or simple. Planning for years into the future is often required to put up a successful mission, and both SpaceX and Boeing have sought to break new grounds. Both have created capsules that can splash down like conventional capsules, but can be reused, saving a great deal of time and enormous costs that come with having to start from scratch at the end of each mission. SpaceX’s Grasshopper rocket has pulled off some impressive feats in testing, where it has shown that it can effectively launch, soar to great heights, and employ its guiding sensors to re-land on the same pad from which it launched. Each company is deeply committed to inventing innovative space technology that will cut costs and increase the efficiency of leaving our atmosphere, which by the way requires an escape velocity of 36,000 MPH. Talk about a high stake buy-in.

No time since the Apollo age has been more exciting for the space industry. New ideas, fresh faces, and private companies are mixing it up with the old guard at NASA. Beyond the standard cast of characters in the established corporate world, some of the world’s most innovative billionaires have made substantial investments into private spaceflight, earning themselves a spot among the “space cowboys.”  But new faces and bold innovation still need to come to terms with old problems and the inherent risks associated with space travel. The Challenger and Columbia disasters remain part of public consciousness and are a reminder of how wrong a mission can go. Such disasters have put a great deal of pressure on NASA to develop and go unmanned whenever possible. This is especially the case given the aging fleet of refurbished rocket engines and other parts now being used by some companies, a practice SpaceX is openly critical about. Like many, critics fear such stopgap measures will tarnish the privatization process as a whole.

In the past, NASA missions required a great deal of time, energy, and planning that caused long separations between missions. But the goal of privatization is to make this a thing of the past and to make spaceflight more commonplace, less expensive, and more accessible. The development of new rocketry, fueled in part by fierce competition, sets a feverish tone that will catapult the United States back into manned space missions and routine space transport. NASA’s ultimate goal is to reach a point where spaceflight is a possibility for more than just astronauts. In a recent press conference NASA administrator, Charles Bolden, announced the contracts with Boeing and SpaceX bring with them the “promise to give more people in America and around the world the opportunity to experience the wonder and exhilaration of spaceflight.” The private sector has the capability to make this goal a profitable possibility, even with a ticket price well below the going $71 million the competition is charging.