NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called the relationship between NASA and SpaceX a symbiotic one in a recent interview with CNBC’s Mike Sheetz. SpaceX has been a workhorse that scored several lucrative contracts from NASA, and NASA counts on it for services like getting astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
As the NASA administrator and former Senator from Florida, Bill Nelson is especially sensitive to NASA’s economic importance to Florida’s east coast. Frequently called the Space Coast, Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center sees frequent launches of rockets like the Falcon 9. Besides NASA’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building, aerospace companies like Boeing and SpaceX have facilities in the area where they can assemble or do last-minute maintenance on their rockets and spacecraft.
Major NASA centers like Florida’s Kennedy Space Center and Texas’s Johnson Space Center – which astronauts call whenever they speak to “Houston” – provide hubs for NASA’s activity. However, NASA touts its economic impact across the United States. It estimates that it supports 339,600 jobs nationwide and provided at least $10 million in economic impact to each of 46 states.
SpaceX is especially shaping up to have an important role as a NASA contractor. It routinely sends cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station on its Dragon spacecraft. There’s two versions, the Cargo Dragon and the Crew Dragon. The Falcon 9 has been a workhorse for SpaceX and NASA, routinely sending NASA hardware and privately owned satellites into space.
Of course, SpaceX isn’t the only game in town. Just one that gets highlighted a lot for being an up-and-coming aerospace powerhouse. Longtime space industry mainstay Northrop Grumman will launch a Cygnus spacecraft packed with cargo for the International Space Station from a launch site in Virginia on November 6.
SpaceX got in ahead of Boeing.
So far, SpaceX has been the only aerospace company to send crew to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program. It shattered a Russian monopoly on crewed spaceflight with its Demo-2 mission, which sent Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on the final test flight of the Crew Dragon on May 30, 2020.
Boeing also has a Commercial Crew contract, but is still working on its somewhat similar looking, if less streamlined, Starliner spacecraft. Once the Starliner is up and running, Boeing plans on effectively “taking turns” with SpaceX to send crew members to the International Space Station. The delays cost Boeing $688 million – a price tag that it can’t pass along to NASA due to the fixed-cost nature of the Commercial Crew contracts.
However, once it gets up and running, its contract calls for six flights to the International Space Station. Boeing plans to make the first crewed flight of Starliner as early as February 2023.
NASA’s and SpaceX’s work may overlap even when NASA isn’t picking up SpaceX’s tab.
NASA has been getting serious about exploring the Moon with the Artemis Program and the Lunar Gateway. It plans the Lunar Gateway to be its next big space station once the International Space Station is retired, though it may also rent space on privately owned ones like Axiom Space’s planned inflatable space station.
Its heavy-duty rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), has seen its share of frustrations. Most recently, it had a test that includes a test an uncrewed version of the module that will ferry astronauts between Earth and the Moon planned, but it had to roll the SLS back to the Vehicle Assembly Building to protect it from a hurricane. Now it could launch as early as November 14 at 12:07 am. (Sorry to anybody living on Florida’s Space Coast who might be trying to sleep; it’s going to make a lot of noise.)
Meanwhile, SpaceX is genuinely trying to get an orbital test of its big Starship / Super Heavy in, if only it can get the approvals from regulators like the FAA out of the way. (The issue is a frustrating amount of bureaucratic red tape, apparently.) Now NASA’s Mark Kirasich says it could launch as early as December.
SpaceX says Starship will be a versatile spacecraft that can serve purposes ranging from quickly sending important cargo to anywhere on Earth to sending people to Mars. Elon Musk had often stated a desire to establish a permanent base on the red planet. SpaceX is already selling tickets for rides on the Starship to the likes of Dennis Tito, who is best known for being the first “space tourist.”
SpaceX pinned down important NASA contracts, but not without a fight.
NASA awarded important contracts to launch components of the Lunar Gateway and develop the Artemis Human Landing System to SpaceX. The awarding of the Human Landing System contract was somewhat contentious, with SpaceX rival Blue Origin filing an appeal with the Government Accountability Office and then fighting a court battle over it. However, it lost both battles. SpaceX continues work on the Human Landing System, which will land humans on the Moon in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of 1950s science fiction magazine covers.
These contracts will support NASA’s plans to establish a more permanent presence on the Moon than was possible during the Apollo Program of the 1960s and 1970s.
SpaceX has also benefitted from its relationship with NASA. Like most aerospace companies, it gets a lot of its cash from government and military contracts that include providing launch services for NASA. It can fly private crewed missions like Inspiration4 on the Crew Dragon, but NASA played a larger part in getting its launch services off the ground.
“You sit down with Elon Musk and he’ll tell you he would not be where he is if it were not for NASA,” said Bill Nelson.
Elon Musk complimented the space agency in past comments: “I’m a big fan of NASA. … NASA does a lot of good things for which it doesn’t get enough credit.”
According to Nelson, the relationship between SpaceX and NASA has been mutually beneficial. SpaceX became a space industry contender for its ability to reliably deliver launch services for its customers and bring costs down with reusable hardware – something that other aerospace companies noticed and are beginning to try to duplicate with things like Boeing’s Starliner. NASA can bring the money through launch contracts for programs like Commercial Crew, Artemis, and the Lunar Gateway.