In the past, launching satellites or other spacecraft into space was a matter of cooperation between government agencies and large Aerospace contractors. But that’s history, and over the past 20 years, private space startups have shown that they can compete with larger peers and, in some cases, even take the lead.
The best proof is space X, a space exploration technology company owned by Elon Musk. Today, space X has the ability to recycle the first stage rocket and reuse it many times, which is the scene of science fiction. In 2020, space X also became the first private company to send astronauts into space. Currently, space X is building a huge new rocket system that could one day send humans to Mars.
Looking at these incredible feats, you might wonder if we still need NASA, or think that NASA and space X are competing. But in reality, the two organizations do very different things and depend on each other to succeed.
What does space X do?
Space X is a private company led by Tesla CEO musk and currently manufactures and launches two types of Rockets: Falcon 9 and Falcon heavy. The boosters of these rockets can usually be recycled, refurbished and reused. This not only saves money, but also reduces the service price of space X, thus gaining a competitive advantage.
Space X also built and launched the Dragon spaceship, a capsule that can transport crew and cargo to the international space station (ISS). Eventually, space X also plans to use the Dragon spacecraft to transport “private astronauts” (non NASA astronauts).
In addition, space X is working on a large rocket and spacecraft system called starship, which can carry huge payloads into space. “Starship” may eventually send people to live on Mars permanently.
In addition, space X has deployed a large satellite network called Starlink, which aims to provide high-speed Internet access services to the world. At present, the number of these satellites is about 1000, and the project has caused some controversy due to concerns that they may cause “light pollution” and interfere with astronomical research.
How is the space X project progressing?
The predecessor of “starship” is the “large Falcon rocket” (BFR). According to the plan of space X, the “starship” will eventually replace its main rocket “Falcon 9” to carry out cargo missions, and eventually carry astronauts to the moon and Mars.
On January 6, 2019, Elon Musk, CEO of space X, exposed a simulation of the “starship” on social media. In February 2020, the “starship” prototype SN1 exploded during a liquid nitrogen pressure test. Since then, space X has been testing the Starship prototype, and has now been tested to sn9. This week, space X also launched Sn10 testing.
Although the starship is still being tested, musk has made ambitious plans. In January 2020, musk proposed the goal of building 100 “starships” a year, to send about 100000 people from earth to Mars whenever the earth and Mars orbit are synchronized.
Musk said on twitter at the time: “we will build 100” starships “a year, and the number will reach 1000 in 10 years, which means that the transportation capacity can reach 100 million tons per year. Every time the earth and Mars orbit are synchronized, we can send about 100000 to Mars at the same time This means that one million people are expected to land on Mars by 2050.
As for the “star chain” project, at the end of October last year, space X took the lead in launching “star chain” testing service in parts of the United States and Canada. According to the feedback from test users, the trial speed of “star link” has exceeded 160 Mbps, exceeding 95% of broadband connections in the United States. The network speed of most test users is within the network speed range given by space X, that is, between 50 Mbps and 150 Mbps.
In January this year, space X launched the “star chain” service in the UK. From 2019 to 2024, space X plans to send thousands of satellites needed for networking into Leo in five years to form a “star chain” network to provide Internet services. As of the end of January this year, the number of space X “star chain” satellites in orbit was about 955.
What does NASA do?
NASA is a taxpayer funded U.S. government agency with more than a dozen offices across the country. NASA reports to the executive branch of the government that the NASA director is appointed by the president. Congress legislates to authorize NASA’s activities and provide its annual budget.
NASA’s budget is set through a political process, not evenly distributed. Nearly half of NASA’s budget goes to manned space programs. For the public, the most prominent of these projects is the international space station (ISS), a permanent manned multinational space laboratory in low earth orbit. NASA is also trying to send astronauts to the moon and Mars through its Artemis Project.
About a third of NASA’s budget goes to its science department, which includes planetary science, earth science, astrophysics, and solar physics. NASA launches space missions to study and explore planets and other worlds, study Earth’s climate, answer fundamental questions about the nature of the universe, and study the sun.
NASA also conducts aerospace research and funds various space technology development efforts. Research shows that NASA provides a wide range of social and economic benefits to the United States.
How does space X compete with NASA?
There is no competition between them. Space X is a for-profit company, while NASA is a taxpayer funded entity that is free to pursue scientific discoveries that are not directly related to economic benefits.
The view that space X and NASA compete with each other is usually related to NASA’s Artemis Project. In 2004, President George W. Bush announced a plan to decommission the space shuttle and return humans to the surface of the moon. This led to the birth of a crew capsule called Orion and a rocket that eventually evolved into a space launch system (SLS).
Orion and SLS are made by aerospace companies Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which in turn use their own private suppliers and subcontractors. These devices are assembled in the center of NASA under the guidance of NASA, and the final products are owned by NASA. These projects have created tens of thousands of high paying jobs at the construction site, with strong political support from local Congress representatives.
Both SLS and Orion are behind schedule and over budget. At the same time, space X has grown from a small start-up to a strong competitor for traditional airlines. Although space X often misses the timeline, its supporters argue that SLS and Orion are too expensive and, based on traditional technology, have been overtaken by spacecraft such as starship.
Advocates of SLS and Orion point out that these vehicles guarantee the ability of the United States to send larger payloads and humans into space. For example, although private companies can build quite large cruise ships, the U.S. government is still building and owning aircraft carriers.
NASA’s official position is that SLS and Orion are currently the best vehicles to send humans to the moon. Moreover, NASA cannot change its course without the necessary political support. By contrast, space X is not responsible to anyone but Elon Musk. It could advance the development of starships to meet Musk’s goal of sending humans to Mars.
How does space X depend on NASA?
Without NASA’s investment, today’s private space would be a different story. In 2006, NASA began investing in private space companies in the hope that they would one day provide cargo and crew transportation services to the international space station. Space X was one of the first companies to get funding from NASA when it was only four years old. It is reported that NASA has paid about half of the cost of developing the Falcon 9 rocket, the main force of space X.
In 2008, space X won a multi billion dollar contract to ship cargo to the international space station. Without NASA, space X would have been on the verge of bankruptcy and would have run out of money. Today, although space X receives revenue from multiple customers, a large part of its funding comes from the delivery of crew and cargo to the international space station and the launch of NASA’s scientific spacecraft. In addition, space X delivers payloads to another taxpayer funded entity, the U.S. Department of defense.
How does NASA rely on space X?
At the end of the 2011 shuttle program, NASA was not ready for a replacement. Despite seven years of preparation time, NASA has never received the necessary funds to complete the construction of the international space station and develop new manned spacecraft and rocket systems, while continuing to use the space shuttle (the cost is $3.5 billion per year by the end of its life)
Anticipating the need for alternative solutions to deliver cargo and crew to the international space station, NASA turned to the aerospace industry and offered a new proposal: instead of paying other companies to build NASA owned aircraft in NASA owned facilities, NASA should pay companies to build their own aircraft and then buy the flights on those vehicles What will happen?
In 2008, NASA signed contracts with space X and Orbital Sciences (now Northrop Grumman) to build their own cargo spacecraft and send them to the international space station. The plan worked: less than a year after the shuttle program, space X’s Dragon spacecraft made its first commercial docking with the international space station. In 2020, space X became the first private company to send NASA astronauts to the international space station.
Without space X, the only U.S. company capable of delivering “cargo” to the ISS would be Northrop Grumman, and NASA’s “crew” transportation would still rely on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
What cooperation does space X have with NASA?
In 2008, NASA signed a contract with space X to build its own cargo spacecraft and send it to the international space station.
In 2012, less than a year after the completion of the space shuttle project, SpaceX’s “dragon spaceship” made its first commercial docking with the international space station, successfully delivering “materials” to the international space station, opening a new era of private space. As of February 2019, space X has cooperated with NASA on 16 replenishment missions to the international space station.
In May 2020, space X launched the first manned version of the Dragon spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida using the Falcon 9 carrier rocket, successfully sending NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the international space station.
This is a significant launch for NASA and space X. Since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle in 2011, this is the first manned space launch mission in the United States, marking the resumption of the ability of the United States to send humans into space. At the same time, it is also the first manned space launch mission since space X was founded 18 years ago. This marks the beginning of a new era in space exploration, and a new era led by commercial companies.
Recently, NASA announced that two astronauts will fly to the international space station in 2022, which will be the fourth crew rotation flight of the “dragon spaceship”. NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Bob Hines have been assigned to the mission and will serve as commanders and pilots, respectively.
In February, NASA also announced that it had selected space X to launch the “spherex” telescope. The “spherex” project is a two-year astrophysics mission, which started in 2024 and plans to put the space telescope spherex into orbit. The project will cost NASA about $98.8 million.
According to NASA, spherex will observe the sky in near-infrared light invisible to the human eye, and the data it collects will help astronomers understand the evolution of the universe and the formation of galaxies.
Why do we need NASA and space X at the same time?
NASA’s support for space X and other companies has reshaped the pattern of the U.S. aerospace industry. Deep rooted aviation contractors, who traditionally had little or no competition, are now paying more attention to new technologies that can reduce space costs. U.S. companies are now competing for the global launch market, which used to be the domain of Chinese and Russian rockets. NASA also benefits from having multiple domestic and international partners that can launch spacecraft and transport crew and cargo to the international space station.
Space X has helped to revive public interest in space flight. The company has made excellent use of live broadcast technology, making every rocket launch and landing an exciting thing. Interest in what space X does (usually with NASA) has inspired a new generation to pursue exciting space ventures.
But humans still need NASA, which does more than just put astronauts into orbit. There is no business case for launching a spacecraft to Pluto or landing on Mars for signs of past life. Space exploration and scientific discovery require long-term public support and investment. Human beings may even have a moral obligation to explore the universe. NASA is also much larger, spending tens of billions of dollars a year on hundreds of major projects, while space X spends millions on a few.
Space exploration brings out the best of humanity. When government agencies such as NASA work with private companies like space X, both will benefit.