One of the questions I get asked most often is “who do you like better NASA or SpaceX”
Who do I like BETTER?!?! WHAT?! Is that even a fair question! It’s almost like saying, who do you like better, the Chicago Bulls or the NBA or perhaps Manchester United or FIFA? Or maybe your arm or your leg?
Well, it’s not QUITE that simple… but hold on…
In this day and age of extreme SpaceX fandom, of which I’m 100% not guilty of /s, it’s important we reflect on the relationship SpaceX has with NASA, how they collaborate, how they differ and why NASA’s future role in space exploration is as important now as ever.
And although I don’t think it’s fair to compare a government agency to a private company in general, there is one thing we CAN compare… and that’s their rockets…
So in this article we’re going to look at some rockets past, present and future from SpaceX and NASA and check out their capabilities, costs and over all designs in an attempt to really help compare the two.
So, NASA vs SpaceX. FIGHT! Or, hug… I don’t know which yet so let’s get started!
This set a tone for the friendly and peaceful exploration of space. But despite its peaceful conception, it was formed primarily as a response to the threat of the hostile Soviet Union having put something into orbit before the United States did.
In just over a decade, NASA went from a fledgling little aerospace entity into a well oiled and well funded machine, capable of putting humans on the surface of the moon.
NASA went from launching people on top of small intercontinental ballistic missiles with Freedom 7 in 1961 to launching astronauts on top of a 111 meter or 363 foot tall flying skyscraper with enough explosive energy to match a small nuclear warhead. They did so in less than 8 years when they flew astronauts on the first Saturn V mission for Apollo 8 in 1968.
The advancements that took place during the “Apollo Era” are legendary and advanced our collective knowledge as a species as a whole, ushering in a new era of understanding and scientific discovery.
Not to mention inspiring a new generation of engineers, mathematicians and scientists, which may certainly helped spark the United States’ leap forward in creating high tech industry and a booming tech economy.
So not only did NASA learn how to put humans in space and then soon after put them on another planetary body, they’ve also taught us how to live in space first with Skylab, then the Space Shuttles and Spacelab, and then they even helped build the International Space Station..
You know, that football field sized flying laboratory that orbits the earth 10 times faster than a bullet which you yourself can wave to under the right conditions. Yeah that thing.
Ok, not only that but let’s not forget the Pioneer missions which were the first spacecraft to visit Jupiter and Saturn, or Voyager 1 and 2 the first probes to do a grand tour of our solar system, or how about the 4 wildly successful Mars rovers and 3 Mars landers, or Cassini-Huygens which explored Saturn, or what about the Hubble Space Telescope?
Ok this list goes on and on and on and the knowledge gained from NASA has been game changing to say the least.
Despite all of NASA’s wildly successful missions, people are seemingly critical of NASA these days, citing over budget missions and rockets, red tape everywhere and sort of having to be told what to do by people who know very little about space, (cough) congress.
And compared to NASA, SpaceX is just the new kid on the block. Having been founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, SpaceX went from almost certain failure, down to literally their last pennies and just one last attempt at reaching orbit with their Falcon 1 rocket to being the most popular launch provider, now offering one of the cheapest rides to space on the most advanced self landing and partially reusable rocket, the Falcon 9!
SpaceX is a private company who sells rides to space. A customer, say NASA, SES, Iridium, Thaicom, the air force, or anyone else wanting to put something in space can hire SpaceX and one of their rockets to get the job done.
SpaceX has recently become the new goal post to which people measure other space companies and agencies against. With their very public displays of trial and error, never ending ambition, and super star CEO, Elon Musk, they’ve inspired a new generation of space dreamers, picking up where NASA left off after the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program.
So let’s actually start there. I think this moment in time, when the commercial program was starting and the space shuttle program was ending is the most important moment in time that can help us understand the current and future relationship of NASA and SpaceX.
Despite wanting to develop commercial options as far back as 1984, NASA finally announced a program called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services or COTS in January of 2006. NASA started accepting proposals from companies two months later. The companies had to show off their concept for delivery of cargo and eventually crew to the International Space Station
And here’s where the relationship with NASA and SpaceX began. In August of 2006, SpaceX secured a contract with NASA to develop their proposed vehicles. NASA’s initial investment to SpaceX was $278 million dollars to develop the Falcon 9 and Dragon Spacecraft.
Hmmm, did you hear that? NASA paid for SpaceX to develop the Falcon 9. So right there, I hope we begin to understand the relationship between SpaceX and NASA. This is starting to sound more like hugs and not boxing gloves…Let’s keep going.
Before SpaceX even launched their first Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule, SpaceX secured a contract for commercial resupply services or CRS from NASA. Now here’s where the big investment comes in, NASA invested $1.6 billion in SpaceX, insuring SpaceX would have what it takes to get the Falcon 9 going.
So before SpaceX had even flown their workhorse Falcon 9, NASA had promised nearly $2 billion in the company. It’s pretty obvious here that NASA hasn’t seen SpaceX as a competitor, instead they have always intended to give SpaceX funding to take over and provide services for NASA so they could pursue bigger rockets and spend more in scientific and experimental endeavors.
I think this is a detail that’s often overlooked. NASA is SpaceX’s biggest customer AND supporter. SpaceX would arguably be nothing if it weren’t for NASA. Not only with NASA’s funding, but also by tapping into NASA’s knowledge base, their legacy of public information and leaning on their expertise in certifying their vehicles.
I mean, even the first 5 flights of the Falcon 9 were for NASA.
Don’t forget, Elon has mentioned MANY times how much he loves NASA and I think his previous password on his computer is pretty telling of that fact.
Another thing to remember is SpaceX leases Pad 39A from NASA. The hallowed ground where humans left Earth to walk on the moon and where most space shuttles took off from! Obviously they have a pretty good working relationship…
So with NASA being famous for basically inventing how to space, let’s take a look at how NASA traditionally designs, builds and pays for spacecraft compared to how SpaceX does.
NASA has traditionally hired out work with contractors on what’s known as cost plus contracting. The idea is you hire someone to build say a command module, you pay them to do that and then they tack on a little extra for their profit.
There’s a few big issues with this way of handling contracts. Number one, there’s little to no incentive for the contractor to complete a project on budget or on time. If it just “costs this much to do something” and then they still make a profit on top of that, it’s just a win/win for the contractor.
Second, if the customer, in this case the government, changes its mind or direction, like it tends to do with every administration change, the contractor might get paid multiple times to do the same work over and over as the program changes.
Cost plus contracting goes way back to World War 2 when urgency was the most critical factor in getting a product in place. The cost efficiency goes way down on the list when it comes to war. Getting someone to work on the project immediately really matters at times of war in order to get the product done as quickly as possible.
That habit stuck around when it came to NASA’s development and how it handled the hiring of contractors. Especially since the space race was essentially a peaceful show of arms, that was really rooted in military supremacy. Getting things done quickly mattered more than the cost.
The cost plus contracting still makes sense when dealing with say a one off martian rover, like the Curiosity Mars Rover. There isn’t room to have a contractor fail. So it just makes sense to say, build this one thing and we’ll pay you for it.
That being said, the government and the space industry got pretty hooked on this cost plus contracting thing being the norm, it’s taken up until fairly recently to figure out a better way to handle those contracts. And now we get into fixed price contracting.
Fixed price contracting is the concept of basically stating how much you will spend for a project and then contractors can bid to try and win the contract. This helps offset the risk for the customer and makes the contractor have more skin in the game.
The problem is, if the project is too ambitious, there’s a chance the project will just simply fail. A company could spend the money and fall short, and the project would then be a flop.
Historically speaking, fixed price contracting hasn’t always gone very well for the military featuring a few programs that cost billions of dollars that wound up being cancelled due to the contractors simply unable to deliver.
So when it comes to NASA hiring SpaceX under the CRS contracts, it’s a new approach that paid off big time for NASA and SpaceX.
And perhaps one of NASA’s most interesting aspects is the fact that its facilities are spread throughout the United States. Have you ever noticed that astronauts always call back to Mission Control in Houston even though they launch from Florida?
Well, there are NASA centers in 8 states and many other facilities in even more states. This can be a little confusing, but there’s a good reason for that.
Since NASA is government funded and the budget for NASA projects are derived by congress, as NASA and its workforce grew leading up to the Apollo era, it needed support from as many members of congress as possible.
For instance, by placing a major center in Houston, NASA would gain support from the Texas members of the house and senate which represents over 8% of congress.
So by spreading their centers throughout the United States, NASA almost automatically has members of congress on their team who will want jobs in their state and keep NASA well funded.
Of course there is some inefficiencies when having to deal with your workforce being spread throughout the country, especially when it comes to building and testing huge rockets.
Parts of the Saturn V were manufactured and tested across the entire US, which is an unusual way to build something. But it worked!
Between NASA and its contractors, there were nearly 400,000 people who worked on the Apollo program. But once we landed on the moon, the public almost immediately lost interest.
This is why despite it taking around 200,000 years of humans existence to get humans to the moon, we only explored for exactly four years, then we stopped going and have yet to return ever since. What a shame.
This led to thousands of well trained, highly educated and intelligent people now twiddling their thumbs. Or as a NASA headquarter official described the Marshall Flight Center post Apollo… “A tremendous solution looking for a problem.”
With its budget shrinking, NASA was left to shift its focus from the moon and Mars to a low earth orbital infrastructure by developing the space transportation system, better known as the space shuttle. The space shuttle was designed to bring the cost of spaceflight down by reusing the majority of the vehicle.
The space shuttle’s design was compromised from the get go by being designed by committee. Everyone had a say in what they wanted the space shuttle to be and do…
This led to the military getting a cargo bay large enough to launch spy satellites, congress not wanting to spend more to make the vehicle more reusable, and many other design compromises that ultimately left humanity stuck in low Earth orbit ever since.
When it comes to actually designing and building rockets, SpaceX does things differently than other traditional aerospace companies. This is where some people might be confused.
SpaceX has changed the game for the aerospace industry by developing and manufacturing most things in house. They build their own engines, their own flight computers and even their own spacecraft all under one roof. This is unusual.
The fact that the engineers who design the rockets have an office in the same building as where the rockets are being manufactured means there’s a tight relationship between the designing and the building of the rockets.
This is another thing SpaceX does that’s unusual. They are constantly tweaking their rockets. To the point where according to SpaceX’s VP of production, Andy Lambert, SpaceX has “Never built any two vehicles identically, such is the pace of innovation at SpaceX”
According to Lead Materials Engineer, Katie Dwyer, she says she can implement design changes in a WEEK rather than having to wait months to even have someone take a look at the change proposal.
The fact that they are constantly tweaking and innovating their rockets is unusual. It leads to break neck evolution of their vehicles, but also has the downside of more potential risk.
Both failures of the Falcon 9 can be indirectly attributed to SpaceX pushing the boundaries of their rockets. But in the long run, they’re learning mountains and are able to create a vehicle that’s considerably more advanced, capable and still evolving compared to other traditional aerospace companies, or say even NASA.
So one last thing to note is that NASA HIRES launch providers, say, SpaceX, ULA, Orbital ATK, Rocketlab,, or whoever else comes along to launch their payloads.
The commercial Space Act started in 1998 and was a way to help develop a commercial space industry in the United States. This is how NASA puts their scientific payloads on a commercial rocket.
Now here’s where you can insert your opinions on which launch provider, or rocket in particular might be best fit for a certain job. So when people say “NASA VS SpaceX” maybe they should be pointing to a specific mission and say “When NASA utilized ULA’s Atlas V for their Mars Insight Rover, I think they should’ve used SpaceX’s Falcon 9 for x, y, and z reasons”
Then you can put your glasses back up on the bridge of your nose and know you at least drew the right conclusion of who vs who here. To which your opinion is probably most valid.
Alright, so now that we’ve helped establish the differences as well as the relationships between NASA and SpaceX, it’s time we compare the rockets of NASA vs the rockets of SpaceX!
So for starters let’s compare two partially reusable launch vehicles that have similar capabilities, NASA’s space shuttle and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.
I don’t think the Space Shuttle needs much of an introduction, but let’s tee it up like this. The space shuttle is a gorgeous, refurbishable space plane that launched between 1981 and 2011. There were 5 operational shuttles that flew during that thirty year span, covering 135 missions!
The final design of the Space Shuttle was chosen by NASA based off a proposal submitted by North American Rockwell in 1972.
The orbiters would be built by Rockwell International, which was later purchased by Boeing in 1996. The external tanks by Martin Marietta, which later merged with Lockheed.
The SRBs by Thiokol, later Morton Thiokol and finally ATK-Thiokol. Wait, which is now Orbital ATK, hold on, but that’s now Orbital ATK a space division of Northrup Grumman…. This is harder to keep track of than a royal family.
The space shuttle was designed by NASA and primarily manufactured by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, ATK, and United Space Alliance.
But ahhh the space shuttle. I can’t even watch videos of the space shuttle and not get a little emotional. It really is beautiful and awe inspiring.
And for SpaceX we’ve got the Falcon Heavy. Do we really need to explain this one? I feel like that’s all we ever talk about these days. Ok well here’s the quick version.
Falcon Heavy is SpaceX’s third launch vehicle, which is up to almost 90% reusable. It’s basically three of their Falcon 9 rockets put together to form a heavy lift launcher. It’s first launch was on February 6th, 2018 and put Elon Musk’s personal Tesla in deep space.
The mission was a huge huge success, not only for landing 2 out of the 3 boosters, or by creating the coolest and most awe inspiring images of a straight up car in space, but also by making a giant display of a spaceflight event arguably for the first time in the 21st century. Falcon Heavy reallllly created some buzz!
I did a video about my experience seeing Falcon Heavy from only 3 miles away and answering the questions of WHY, why Falcon heavy and why a tesla in space. It’s one of my favorite videos, so if you haven’t already, definitely check it out.
Ok so let’s get into the numbers here.
The Space shuttle stood 56 meters or 184 feet tall, which is not much taller than just the first stage of the Falcon Heavy, which all together stands at 70 meters or 230 feet tall.
The Space Shuttle’s diameter, is…. Hard to measure… The big orange external fuel tank was a massive 8.4 meters or 27.5 feet wide, the orbiter itself had a wingspan of 23.7 meters or 78 feet, and the each of the white solid rocket rocket boosters on either side of the orange tank were 3.7 meters or 12 feet wide.
And believe it or not, that’s the exact same diameter of the Falcon 9/Falcon Heavy cores. Obviously the Falcon Heavy has 3 cores, so all together it’s 12.2 meters or 40 feet wide.
Next let’s compare the thrust of the two vehicles. The space shuttle was CRAZY powerful. More specifically, those massive solid rocket boosters were crazy powerful.
Combined, the two solid rocket motors produced 25,000 kN’s or 5.6 million pounds of thrust! Then the space shuttle had 3 main liquid engines known as RS-25s which produced another 5,250 kN’s or 1.2 million pounds of thrust for a total of 30,250 kN’s or 6.8 million pounds of thrust.
The Falcon Heavy, although the most powerful rocket currently flying, was a fair amount less powerful than the Space Shuttle with a total of 22.800 kN’s or 5.1 million pounds of thrust.
In the grand scheme of rockets that have flown, the Falcon Heavy is only the 5th most powerful, coming in after the Soviet Union’s N1 moon rocket, which techincally flewwww, but all four flights ending in a Rapid Unscheduled Dissaembly, NASA’s Saturn V moon rocket, The Soviet Union’s Energia rocket which carried their Buran Space Shuttle and lastly the United State’s Space shuttle.
Don’t get me wrong, the Falcon Heavy is AMAZING, but it’s easy to forget about the giants that preceded it.
So who cares about thrust, what’s the actual capability of the vehicles?
Well the space shuttle is kind of weird, because technically it could put the orbiter which weighed 68,500 kg’s or 151,000 pounds empty, PLUS up to 27,500 kg’s or 60,000 pounds of payload into orbit.
But since the orbiter portion wasn’t part of the payload, we’ll have to stick with the 27,500 kg payload capacity as that’s what was actually delivered to space.
The Falcon Heavy on the other hand can put 63,800 kgs or 140,000 pounds in orbit, when fully expendable.. Which it probably won’t do very often. When all three cores are to be recovered, it sounds like the payload capability is about half that, so around 30,000 kgs or 66,000 pounds to low earth orbit.
And since the whole point of the Falcon Heavy is to reuse as much of the vehicle as possible, let’s go ahead and quote the 30,000 kg’s as its usable payload to orbit.
So how about price? I’m sure we have an idea where this is going… Although the Space Shuttle was able to reuse many of its components, due to massive refurbishment costs, paying for the safety and the redundant hardware required for humans on cargo, and design compromises, the space shuttle wound up very, very expensive.
It’s hard to really get an exact number on this, but the entire shuttle program cost 210 BILLION dollars to design, manufacture, run, maintain and fly. Divide that by the 135 missions and you get a cost of around 1.5 billion dollars PER LAUNCH.
That might be unfair considering that’s not the price tag a customer looking to launch on the Space Shuttle would pay, the sticker price for a launch was quoted as about $450 million per mission.
The Falcon Heavy on the other hand has a sticker price of only $90 million, when being reused, but might cost around $150 million if expended. But we’ll stick to that $90 million reusable price since that’s what we’re quoting for payload capability.
Lastly let’s compare the price per KG ratio of each vehicle.
The Space Shuttle, if we’re quoting the launch cost of $450 million and a 27,500 kg payload comes in at $16,363 dollar per kg. The Falcon Heavy on the other hand at a launch cost of $90 million and a 30,000 kg payload comes in at $3,000 per KG. Woah… so more than 5 times cheaper.
Despite the Space Shuttle aiming to bring the cost of space down by being reusable, it took until a private company used 21 century innovation, cost cutting manufacturing techniques and potentially wreckless amounts of tweaking to actually make that dream a reality.
Next let’s compare two upcoming launch vehicles from both NASA and SpaceX.
NASA’s next generation launch vehicle is called SLS or the Space Launch System. SLS is NASA’s push to get Humans back into deep space for the first time since the Apollo missions.
It’s design is rather interesting, mostly utilizing space shuttle era components. As a matter of fact, you can see the space shuttle everywhere you look. That big orange fuel tank, is essentially just a stretched version of the shuttle’s external fuel tank, the 4 main engines are literally reused RS-25 engines from previously flown shuttle missions, and those massive solid rocket boosters on the sides are 5 segment versions of the four segment boosters used on the shuttle.
The upper stage, at least of the Block 1 version currently being built, is the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage which is pretty much the upper stage off of ULA’s Delta IV rocket with a single RL10 engine. BTW, the RL10 engine is crazy efficient and is a super awesome, albeit super expensive engine.
This Block 1 will fly with NASA’s Orion Spacecraft. A bigger and deep space ready follow up to the Apollo spacecraft. Rated to actually get humans out to Mars! Woah.
We hope to see the first flight of the SLS in 2020 with the first Exploration Mission or EM-1.
SpaceX’s upcoming rocket is the BFR or Big Falcon Rocket. The BFR is essentially SpaceX’s Mars rocket. Capable of sending up to 100 people to Mars and back, this thing is full blown nuts.
The booster portion of the rocket will have 31 Methane powered Raptor engines and will be fully reusable. The upper stage spaceship portion will have 4 vacuum optimized Raptor engines and 3 sea level ones for a total of 7.
The ship is primarily made of an advanced Carbon Composite material and is designed to be FULLY reusable. So much so SpaceX envisions it being used as a point to point transportation system here on Earth.
We’ve previously done a really deep rundown on the BFR and compared it to some other rockets. So if you want to learn more about it’s development, be sure and check out this video.
SpaceX hopes to test the BFR in 2019 and flying by 2020. That’s pretttty ambitious.
So let’s start with block 1 of SLS, since that’s what we know for sure will fly here soon. SLS block 1 will stand at 98 meters or 322 feet tall. Not bad, but definitely shorter than the current version of the BFR which is 106m or 348 feet tall. Although, rumor has it, it’s probably already grown taller than that. Go figure.
SLS’s diameter, at least at the core of the vehicle, is that 8.4 meters or 27.5 feet wide, which is just slightly under the 9 meters or 30 feet wide BFR.
Next we’ve got thrust. The SLS’s 5 segment boosters are STUPID powerful. Combined, they’re almost as powerful as the Saturn V! Together they produce 32,000 kN or 7.2 million pounds of thrust. The core stage produces another 7,400 kN or 1.6 million pounds of thrust. Together the first stage produces 39,440 kN or 8.8 million pounds of thrust. WOAH.
But how about the BFR? The BFR’s 31 Raptor engines produce a whopping 52,700 kN or 11.8 million pounds of thrust! That’s more than two Falcon Heavies combined!
So how about capability? SLS block 1 can put 70,000 kg or 150,000 pounds in low Earth Orbit which is only about half that of the BFR which can take 150,000 kg’s or 330,000 pounds to LEO.
Now the realllllly big question. COST. To date, the development costs of SLS and Orion capsule is an astonishing 23.8 billion. And so far the SLS hasn’t launched yet and the Orion Capsule has only flown one heat shield test flight that lasted about 4 hours. Gulp.
But we’re dealing with ONLY the SLS rocket itself, which to date has cost around 12 billion dollars.
That being said, once all systems are set in place, it looks like the cost per launch vehicle is estimated to be AROUND $500 million. So development costs aside, we’ll use that $500 million number.
Now here’s where things get silly. Industry estimates show the cost of the BFR to be around $335 million dollars. BUT, the real game changer is that the rocket can be reused over and over and over with an actual launch cost of only around $7 million.
SpaceX has even claimed that it’ll be cheaper to launch the BFR than it was to launch their first little baby rocket, the Falcon 1, due to the primary costs of the BFR’s flight just being fuel.
Say the BFR winds up not even being reusable AT ALL, which I wouldn’t bet on, even a single $335 million dollar launch vehicle with this kind of capability is still massively impressive.
So let’s not even do a cost per/KG ratio on these two. I think that’s besides the point. These two vehicles demonstrates where I feel like a lot of criticism comes in with NASA.
With almost 12 BILLION DOLLARS put into a launcher that hasn’t flown once, and money thrown around with every changing decision, it’s easy to see why there’s strong opposition to SLS.
I think the problem is twofold. Number one, SLS has no real clear cut objective. If NASA and congress said once and for all, “We’re developing a moon base and a lunar station in 5 years and we’re going to build it with SLS” I think a lot more would get done.
But what preluded SLS was the Ares 5 rocket which was supposed to return us to the moon, then we turned it into SLS which was destined for Mars, and then just an asteroid and then maybe one Europa mission, and now, really nothing concrete.
Number two is the the sunk cost fallacy. That’s the idea that we’ve already poured over $20 billion dollars into this program…. we might as well keep going and get something out of our investment rather than scrapping it.
But what happens when it changes every other year and we never get to the point of actually seeing it fly? SLS was initially supposed to fly in 2018 with a cost of 7 billion dollars.
We’re well beyond that now, and the end still isn’t in sight. Despite many of the components being completed, and most of the vehicle physically ready, we’re still a couple years from even seeing it fly.
BUT, put me down as a card carrying sunk cost fallacist… WE’RE SO DANG CLOSE TO ACTUALLY SEEING IT FLY. At this point, I don’t care if it flies once, twice, or 30 times. I need to hear those MASSIVE SRB’s rip the sky apart, and I want to see those incredible RS-25’s do some work instead of sitting on a shelf somewhere to rot.
That being said, and this pains me to say this considering I have several good friends who work on SLS and Orion… with the inefficiencies, budgetary problems, and lack of a real cut and dry purpose, I think the SLS/Orion program needs to be reconsidered. Either it needs a VERY CLEAR and conscience purpose for existence, or it needs to not exist.
And with the current budget of around $2 billion a YEAR in development costs, NASA could launch 13 expendable Falcon Heavies a year or 6 expendable BFRS. It’s really hard to imagine a scenario where one SLS would be better than 13 Falcon Heavies or 6 BFRs.
And again, I don’t think it’s really fair to just compare programs purely on a per dollar amount like this, I realllly do think it needs to at least be in consideration.
It really feels like NASA and or congress are pushing to build a rocket to nowhere. I would much much rather they have clear mission drawn up first, then develop the rocket based on that mission. Not build a rocket and hope a mission comes up that needs it.
Speaking to this note, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, mentioned in a recent TED talk the beauty of starting with a clean slate on a rocket. SpaceX’s rocket design is physics driven, first and foremost.
There are no predefined requirements. No one saying, “hey, we have this engine sitting around, just use that,” or, “This company already makes this component, use it!”
Phew…. Ok I’m done comparing rockets… let’s go ahead and wrap up with one final note to chew on.
So to summarize my thoughts on NASA building a rockets…
At one point building super advanced rockets was something too risky, too out there and too audacious for anyone but a massively funded government program could do. But now, rockets are becoming relatively easy to build, well understood and most importantly profitable.
So my personal belief is I think it’s time NASA stops building rockets. The money put into the SLS and Orion program could do amazing things scientifically. With the annual budget currently poured into SLS, each year NASA could launch a Curiosity rover, or send another Cassini class mission out to a gas giant, or even launch another Hubble Space Telescope.
The universe is BIG, there’s SO much exploring to do, and I think that’s what NASA’s primary mission should be. To explore space, do the science that’s pushing our understanding of the universe, and continue to employ the greatest minds to make massive breakthroughs in propulsion, habitats, exoplanets, human’s health in space, and even what it takes to live on other planets.
And SpaceX, you just keep being SpaceX. Dream big, help bring that cost of space down, and someday complete your mission of making humans a multi-planet species. I know of a few organizations that’d love to help make that happen!
So all things considered, I think the most important thing we need to solidify in our heads is what NASA’s role is, and maybe more importantly what it should be.
And I think there’s ONE word that sums it up.
Science isn’t always profitable. As a matter of fact, when it comes to understanding physics and our place in the universe, science is almost never profitable.
Well, actually, I take that back… some estimates show that for every $1 we invest in NASA, we get a $7 to $14 dollar return on that investment due to spin off technologies. So… I guess there’s that. BUT…
In a world where NASA or other space agencies don’t exist, and it’s all private launch providers, who’s going to pay to send a probe out to Saturn, then, who pays to operate the mission for a dozen years, and then who pays to comb through all that beautiful data?
Who trains astronauts to do scientific research? Who oversees operations and vehicles to ensure they’re safe for people and cargo?
Who will pursue development of advanced propulsion systems that may not work out, like advanced ION drives, nuclear propulsion, the EM drive, or dare I say, warp drives?
Who’s going to study the effects on the human anatomy in deep space? Who will study and fight the effects of deep cosmic radiation? Who will keep an eye on gene mutations after long stays in space?
NASA and SpaceX, as well as all other private companies, will continue to work together. They’ll continue to literally broaden our horizon. It’s not an us vs them thing. Space is only an US thing.
As I say often, space is the one border us humans share. As soon as we step off this planet, it’s no longer this neighborhood vs that neighborhood, this city vs that city, this state vs that state, this country vs that country, no, it’s HUMANS vs the universe.
So now, most importantly, do you think it’s even fair to ask which do you like better, NASA or SpaceX? I hope, if anything, we helped begin to clear that up.
Let me know if you have any questions about this topic. What do you think NASA’s role should be moving forward? Do you still think it’s NASA vs SpaceX? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
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