On September 1, photos of the fireball that was once SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the nation. For the first time in recent years, the public’s attention was turned toward outer space, and this time, NASA was not the center of attention. Instead, the public eye turned toward the growing trend of private companies in space.
Outer-space companies appear to be the latest darlings of wealthy entrepreneurs. Elon Musk, the tech magnate who founded SolarCity and Tesla, started SpaceX in 2002 with a mission to “revolutionize space technology with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.”
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, began Blue Origin in 2000. Like SpaceX, Blue Origin contracts with other companies to launch vessels into space, but is also promoting its program as a means for ordinary people to feel like astronauts by offering them short space flights. Though this second goal has yet to be achieved, Blue Origin is already working with researchers to launch payloads of research equipment into space.
Other companies like Virgin Galactic (an affiliate of Virgin Airlines) and XCOR Aerospace are also pursuing suborbital space tourism. As NASA’s funding and profile have diminished over the last decades, SpaceX and its competitors have begun to fill its shoes.
This shift towards space research in the private sector is not a tragic story of the United States’ space agency succumbing to partisan budget wars—instead, it’s giving NASA the freedom to pursue other endeavors.
“There’s a very clear sense that NASA has given more routine aspects of its work, like servicing the International Space Station, over to private companies, while at the same time it was focusing its energies on deep space exploration,” Tufts Assistant Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics Anna Sajina said. “I think it’s just a shift in focus, which I actually think is the right direction.”
In 2006, NASA launched its Commercial Orbital Transport Services Program (COTS), which was designed to incentivize private companies in developing a replacement for the Space Shuttle, a vessel that transports astronauts and supplies to and from the International Space Station. By investing $700 million—only half of what a Space Shuttle flight would cost—NASA helped two companies, including SpaceX, create the technology to launch their own vehicles.
Programs like COTS have allowed NASA to shift away from sub-orbital space operations, or those closest to Earth, and turn its sights instead on exploring Mars and sending a human there one day.
“It’s worth remembering that it’s not a more or less thing, it’s these things that NASA does and allowing private companies to enter some aspects of it, so NASA is freed up to do what they do best, which is the deep space exploration,” Sajina said.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Science, Space, and Health Jonathan Margolis also emphasized the importance of the federal government working closely with private companies to align their goals.
“The United States government encourages private investment in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space. The United States sees great promise in private sector efforts to advance path-breaking activities that deepen our understanding of space and unlock new space applications that benefit all mankind,” Margolis said in an e-mail.
In short, the government sees private space companies as the most efficient way to expand space exploration—they don’t need to invest taxpayer money in research projects that already have the attention of the private sector.
So far, SpaceX’s launches have mainly been satellites for telecommunications companies. However, SpaceX and Boeing have now contracted with NASA to fly astronauts to the International Space Station at the end of 2018. Moon Express, another spacefaring company, received approval to be the first private company to exit the Earth’s orbit and land on the moon in early August.
Dr. Kenneth Lang, Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Tufts University, is enthusiastic about the prospect of these ventures. He thinks the increase of private companies will lead to more discoveries and better ventures.
“I’m not a corporate person, I’m not a profit-motivated person. I’m an idea person and a discovery person, and the number of discoveries is likely to increase,” Lang said. “You can’t say what those discoveries will be before because they’re unknown, but it’s inevitable that more of them will be made when you send more spacecraft out.”
American companies are leading the way, but they are not the only ones who will make these kinds of discoveries. The number of countries with spacefaring capabilities has grown, as has the number of space companies abroad. This phenomenon is pushing the State Department and others to coordinate more carefully with other countries’ space agencies.
“We will continue to work with other nations to determine how best to manage [private companies’] activities so that they are conducted in a safe and responsible manner, consistent with international law, that allows space technologies and services to flourish,” Margolis wrote.
To this end, the International Space Exploration Forum convened in January 2014. A far cry from the space race of the Cold War, the forum was designed to help countries align their objectives in outer space and promote information sharing. An important topic under discussion was how to bring private companies into the fold to help achieve these goals.
Cooperation with private companies is not without its risks. However promising the possibility of increased discoveries in space is, Dr. Lang expressed concerns about companies’ motivations to explore in the first place.
“The thing that bothers me about it is the profit motivation. The motivation of companies is essentially to make money, and it might be to make money for the wrong people. It might be to make money for the CEO, not for the guy who does the science,” he said. Lang worries that this profit motivation may cause companies to ask for larger “indirect cost allowances” in their contracts with NASA, which would essentially go into their pockets instead of towards their projects.
Other sectors, like defense, have also seen an increase in reliance on private companies, which many see as allowing the government to take less and less responsibility for its actions. Coupled with the often-contradictory motives of the public and private sector, many are understandably troubled by this change.
On the flip side, private companies could also increase the efficiency of space expeditions.
“What companies are extremely good at, what market forces are extremely good at, is finding the cheapest ways to do things,” Sajina said.
For example, SpaceX and others are working on technology to make rockets reusable, a step that would reduce both waste and costs. By improving on these more routine missions, private companies are making near space more accessible and allowing NASA to explore further afield.
“A private company is good at some aspects and NASA is certainly great at other aspects, so each can play to their strengths,” Sajina said.