SpaceX is not a threat to NASA

SpaceX is not a threat to NASA
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Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, has astonished the world with his development of a Falcon 9 rocket with a reusable first stage. The development has helped to drive down the cost of space travel and promises to open space to commercial development and more voyages of exploration.

The rise of SpaceX and commercial space in general, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, is not sitting very well with the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle, the hometown newspaper of NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center. It recently published an editorial arguing that Musk is threatening to supplant NASA, what the Chronicle called “the people’s space program.” The key paragraph reads thus:

“NASA appears just as starved of resources as before, despite the omnipresent talk among politicians of returning America to the moon and beyond. It’s just that now, some of the funding goes to SpaceX and to Musk. That money may well help Musk build a thriving business that helps humanity in other ways, but the space agency itself is still stuck in low gear. Musk would like to help solve that problem, representatives of SpaceX recently told Congress, by securing more public money for the company to fund missions beyond Earth and canceling NASA’s future rocket platform. In other words, SpaceX has made clear that its plan is to supplant NASA, not aid it.”


The problem is the paragraph contains a number of false premises. First, NASA has gotten some healthy funding increases in recent years, past $21 billion for the next fiscal year. Second, SpaceX and the other commercial space companies are not interested in supplanting NASA. They want to partner with the agency that sent men to the moon and built the International Space Station. The rise of commercial space represents a unique opportunity for NASA to achieve even greater glory.

For example, while the Chronicle is wringing its hands about the supposed overthrow of Houston as “space city,” SpaceX is completing a private space port near Brownsville, Texas, a five-hour car drive from the Johnson Spaceflight Center.  

Next year, the commercial space company intends to start testing its next, monster rocket, the BFR, also known as the Big Falcon Rocket. The rocket will start hop testing but is scheduled to go to low Earth orbit in two or three years and then to the moon and Mars soon after that. The rocket will be a reusable two-stage launch vehicle capable of taking 150 metric tons to Earth orbit. With a tanker flight, the BFR could take unprecedented cargo and people to deep space.

Musk must know that just down the road from his space port is a facility to train astronauts and to provide flight control services for any kind of crewed space flight. NASA can thus not only become a full partner for Musk’s proposed private voyages of space discovery but would be able to lease the BFR for its own missions. The first people to go back to the moon and land on Mars may well leave from Texas, if NASA wants it.

The BFR is not currently on the radar of many policymakers in Washington. They are still fixated on the expensive, expendable Space Launch System, which has been faced with numerous delays and cost overruns. The SLS is proving to be an albatross that may sink NASA and its dreams of space exploration glory. The BFR, if it can do half of what Musk is boasting it can, could prove to be the fulfillment of those dreams.

NASA’s young, reformist administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineKatherine Johnson, 'hidden figure' at NASA during 1960s space race, dies at 101 The real reason SpaceX hired former top NASA official Trump goes all in for NASA's Artemis return to the moon program MORE is an exception. He recently hinted that if a commercial alternative to the SLS, such as the Big Falcon Rocket, becomes available, he would consider making use of it. If Musk is smart he will invite Bridenstine to the first tests of the BFR. He could see with his own eyes the ultimate opportunity, joint missions back to the moon and on to Mars with an American rocket company.

America has a unique competitive advantage over other nations where space flight is concerned, that being the existence of a vibrant, commercial space sector. It is time to embrace that advantage, not to reject it out of fear.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”