NASA goes from bunsen to back-burner

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor


The privatization of space by large companies like SpaceX and a thriving ecosystem of startups including Relativity Space, Firefly and Made in Space has forced the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to reconsider the role it plays in space exploration. Some argue that the privatization of space poses a threat to the hopes of democratizing space. Yet, NASA has been hamstrung by budget cuts since Challenger exploded in 1986 — reminding people how dangerous and perhaps insane it is to strap humans to a rocket that pulls upwards of eight g’s. Now Elon Musk and co. can do it in reverse, landing an orbital class rocket on a dime as it falls through 80 kilometers of sky at Mach 10.

Meanwhile, NASA has spent $18.6 billion on their new Space Launch System (SLS), which they have been working on since 2011. It costs SpaceX just $62 million per launch to toss Falcon 9 into low-earth orbit and land it again as many as 25 times a year. SLS has yet to leave the shore of our little blue dot. 

Then, in 2019, NASA announced that it would allow private citizens to fly to the International Space Station (ISS). These private citizens are not the average Joe. They are wealthy billionaires capable of paying for the $60 million it would cost SpaceX to launch them to the ISS — just as they launched actual NASA astronauts this past November. Prior to contracting out their launch capabilities to SpaceX, NASA had been hitching a ride aboard Roscosmos — Russia’s state-run aerospace company. Opening up space to commercialization as part of the process of democratizing the last frontier is a noble cause. NASA contradicts this sentiment, and in the process has resigned itself to a sort of space authority emeritus.

Instead of leading the space wave, NASA has taken to awarding space contracts and posting YouTube videos about returning to the Moon by 2024. However, the space industry is thriving and we most certainly have NASA to thank for the complex ecosystem of startups that have sprung up around it. Perhaps this is the proper role. Large government organizations simply can not compete with the innovation of agile startups with venture capitalist backing.

This past year, various startups were awarded one billion dollars as part of NASA’s mission to return to the Moon. The agency says that it hopes this new role will allow them to catalyze space in preparation for new markets. In addition to funding the technological and scientific advancements coursing through the veins of young space companies, NASA has agreed to fund some private companies in training their own corporate astronauts. For all of its storied history, the agency has gone to extremes to prevent corporate interest in outer space — especially in the ISS. Last year, Axiom Space agreed to repurpose the ISS when its operational budget runs out in 2022. The space infrastructure company plans on transforming the ISS into a massive space hub — literally a Star Trek-esque spaceport between the Earth and Moon.

NASA’s shift to space catalyst is not a bad thing, but it may represent a dangerous transfer of power in space from a democratic agency to for-profit interests. For now the relationships are very healthy. SpaceX and NASA have worked incredibly well together for many years now; a relation around which hundreds of startups have infused a new space race with nostalgia and innovation. The beloved agency no longer operates at the forefront of space exploration, but it most certainly will continue to surf the space wave as it breaches old stigmas, creates new markets and anchors each endeavor in science.