On NASA's 60th birthday, it's reinventing itself for the SpaceX era

NASA tries to find its place in a future where orbit, and perhaps even the moon and Mars, could become the hottest places to do business.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
9 min read

NASA has ventured every which way across the solar system, but a change of direction closer to home could be its most audacious move since the moon landings.

In the next decade, a typical mission could go something like this: NASA astronauts board a SpaceX Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) along with commercial astronauts and a few wealthy tourists. The rocket stops at the new space hotel circling the globe to drop off the visitors and the NASA astronauts spend a few hours there filming an advertisement and lending their endorsement to the privately owned "microgravity resort."

Buzz Aldrin on the moon

Read more about NASA on its 60th anniversary.


From there, the commercial astronauts continue on to service the lunar gateway, a space station in orbit around the moon that functions as a sort of truck stop for traffic between Earth and the moon. The NASA astronauts journey on to the lunar surface to continue building the agency's new outpost there, where both SpaceX and competitor Blue Origin already have permanent landing pads and the latter provides meals prepared by the only off-planet Whole Foods in the galaxy.

It's the kind of vision that feels ripped from campy science fiction flicks, but as NASA turns 60 on Oct. 1, all of it is being openly discussed by the agency's leadership. And if the push to open NASA and space to commercial interests succeeds, this vision could also include a significant trade between Earthlings and the first permanent residents of Mars by the time NASA turns 100.

"They'll be doing genetic engineering with no reservations, and they'll create new crop strains and they'll license those patents on Earth," said Robert Zubrin, co-founder of the Mars Society, a nonprofit that promotes a human presence on the red planet.

Such a market may be several decades away, but the International Space Station is already in the process of opening up to private interests.

"Right now we've got a Boeing astronaut, and we're talking about having a SpaceX astronaut and even maybe not astronauts ... but folks that are going [to the ISS] for other purposes," new NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a NASA Advisory Council meeting in August. "They could be going for science or developing capabilities or they could be going simply for tourism."

Taking capitalism to new heights  

Congress didn't have tourists in mind when it created NASA in 1958. It was in a panic to catch up to the Soviets in the brand-new space race.

The space agency soon become one of the most iconic scientific organizations in human history. But today it's at a crossroads. NASA is no longer the lone frontrunner, but rather one of many, many players operating in space, as space becomes just another place to do business.

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Still, the ties between NASA and private enterprise have deep roots.

"It is important to keep in mind that all the money spent in space is really spent on Earth," Bill Nye, celebrity "Science Guy" and CEO of the nonprofit advocacy and outreach group The Planetary Society, said via email. "Nowadays … a number of companies are providing launch services and hardware without NASA's direct involvement. This is all to the good."

NASA has always outsourced systems and components -- everything from rocket engines, cargo capsules and space toilets all the way to the Hubble Space Telescope -- to contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, but the whole shebang would be integrated and assembled by the space agency. And through the end of the Space Shuttle era in 2011, it was rare to see the logo of private companies on mission hardware.

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In 2006, though, NASA awarded a contract for "commercial orbital transportation services" to SpaceX, which led to other contracts for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (now part of Northrop Grumman) to resupply the International Space Station using the companies' own rockets and spacecraft.

"What's changed is for those systems where there's a lot of legacy and knowledge like crew and cargo transportation," said Boeing's director of business development for space exploration, Peter McGrath. "Now you have commercial entities providing that more as a service."

SpaceX lands two of the first-stage boosters from Falcon Heavy.


Thanks in large part to SpaceX's new reusable rocket technology and dramatic landings, NASA's commercial resupply missions have become more notable for the private contractor conducting the launch than the cargo being sent to the ISS.

NASA's chief says moving from overseeing the development of rockets in-house to buying launches as a service makes practical and economic sense.

"If we're one customer of many customers, the cost goes down and our access goes up," Bridenstine told a crowd at NASA's Ames Research Center in California in late August.  

Now the commercialization of launch services is expanding to how astronauts get to the ISS. In recent years, astronauts have hitched rides aboard Russian spacecraft -- a routine workaround that would have seemed unthinkable during NASA's first decade.

But new commercial crew spacecraft, designed by both Boeing and SpaceX, are set to be tested in the coming months, and if all goes well, crewed launches will come back to the US.

"We're on the brink of getting commercial crew off the ground," Bridenstine said. "We're going to be launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time since 2011."


NASA assigned nine astronauts to crew the first test flight and mission of both Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon. The astronauts are, from left to right: Sunita Williams, Josh Cassada, Eric Boe, Nicole Mann, Christopher Ferguson, Douglas Hurley, Robert Behnken, Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover.


SLS versus BFR

NASA has a taxpayer-funded annual budget in the neighborhood of $20 billion. Each commercial launch to the space station by SpaceX or Northrop Grumman costs $191 million on average. (By contrast, each space shuttle launch cost NASA over $1 billion, though it's a bit of an apples-and-oranges comparison between manned shuttles and unmanned cargo capsules.)

While the idea is to cut down on costs, the move toward outsourcing launches puts some NASA programs in an awkward position.

Infographic describing NASA's next big rocket, the Space Launch System.
Enlarge Image
Infographic describing NASA's next big rocket, the Space Launch System.

NASA's Space Launch System will be more powerful than both the space shuttle's liftoff  rockets and the Saturn V that carried the Apollo crews into space.


NASA has been working for over a decade on a replacement for the shuttle launch system, a huge rocket arrangement called the Space Launch System -- essentially an upgraded version of the rocket stack used for the shuttles -- that will be the most powerful booster ever built. NASA says SLS will produce 17 percent more thrust than the Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo astronauts. But like so many of the agency's big projects, its debut has been slipping for years, and it's now uncertain the maiden mission, set for mid-2020, will be on time.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk's SpaceX hopes to begin limited tests of the hardware for its next-generation BFR, intended to transport humans to the moon and Mars.

When NASA began work on SLS in earnest in 2011, some suggested it might be better to contract with SpaceX to develop a new heavy-lift rocket. Zubrin says that at the time he didn't agree with those critics, but SpaceX's successes have changed his mind.

"Since then," he said, "SpaceX has overperformed and NASA has underperformed in terms of launch vehicles."

He says that even though SLS may have 30 percent more lift capacity than BFR, it would come at many times the cost of what SpaceX could deliver.

So what happens if BFR beats SLS to launch and also winds up being more economical and practical? Will NASA be forced to discard over a decade's worth of rocket development to go with the commercial alternative?

"The fact that we've got hardware in the factory, to me, says a lot," said Rob Chambers, director of human spaceflight strategy for Lockheed Martin, which isn't involved with SLS, but is building the new Orion crew capsule for NASA that would fly atop it and has been involved with practically every robotic NASA mission to Mars.

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The Trump administration and Bridenstine are hoping to take NASA much further into the free market. In May, President Donald Trump signed Space Directive 2, which calls for "Streamlining regulations on commercial use of space," starting with low-earth orbit.

At the NASA Advisory Council meeting in August, Bridenstine and satellite company Maxar Technologies executive Mike Gold, whom Bridenstine appointed to a newly formed committee on commercializing space, spoke about a number of potential new NASA ventures that would've seemed anathema a few years ago.

"Is it possible for NASA to offset some of its costs by selling the naming rights to its spacecraft, or the naming rights to its rockets?" Bridenstine asked rhetorically before the council. "I'm telling you there is interest in that right now."

Gold, meanwhile, described a future in which NASA astronauts star in commercials aboard the International Space Station or are allowed to pursue their own endorsement deals on the side, like professional athletes. He even envisions NASA supporting the development of private-sector space stations in low-earth orbit.

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And there are potential commercial uses of low-earth orbit beyond advertising.

"We have proven there's a commercial marketplace in lower earth orbit for pharmaceuticals, for manufacturing. … Fiber optics, for example, can be created in a very pristine way in a microgravity environment," Bridenstine told reporters on Aug. 30. "We want to take all of that, commercialize it, and then NASA can use all of its resources to go to the moon and go on to Mars."

Once NASA reaches the moon again, it may also act to turn some of those resources over to industry. This summer, the agency sent out a request for ideas on commercial uses for a lunar gateway orbiting the moon.

"We think there are, no kidding, addressable market products from lunar resources that we are actively talking to various customers about today," Lockheed Martin's Chambers said.


Lockheed Martin is one of a handful of companies developing a concept for a lunar orbiting gateway.

Lockheed Martin

Some of the ways Lockheed Martin and others hope to tap those resources and sell them are proprietary, but others are relatively obvious. For example, water could be mined from ice on the moon and converted to propellant to refuel communications satellites in orbit around Earth, with every step of the process taking place up there.

Zubrin supports the notion of using NASA to help develop infrastructure that fosters space commerce, but sees the lunar gateway as a sweetheart deal for contractors and a waste of NASA funds that would be better be spent on developing a lunar lander, habitats and rovers for setting up a base on the moon's surface. He refers to the proposal as the "lunar tollbooth."

"It is a waste of money, it is a waste of time, and it will distort the space program for decades."

Watch this: NASA at 60: Celebrating its incredible legacy

Focusing on the future

Jim Reuter, acting associate administrator of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, says that buying commercial services for missions allows NASA to focus on building technologies the market doesn't offer yet.

"It enables us to try to take things to the next step," Reuter said. "We think there's at least a few companies that have progressed far enough on small landers that we can buy a service there."

Using commercial rockets and landers frees up Reuter's department to pursue more bleeding-edge projects, like a NASA- and Department of Energy-developed nuclear fission reactor that could one day power bases on the moon and Mars.

But the space agency is considering handing over much more than just launch and landing services to private companies in the near term.

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"As NASA reorients toward human space exploration, our private companies and visionary innovators are going to take the lead in developing the regions closer to home," Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the National Space Council, told NASA employees at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in August.

Boeing's McGrath says it's important for the government to stay involved because space as a commercial market isn't yet mature enough to be completely handed over to industry.

Meanwhile, the administration is laying out a new mission for NASA that's very different from what the agency's done for the past 60 years. While NASA will continue to explore the cosmos -- as in its missions to Saturn's moons and out beyond Pluto --  it will lay down fresh pavement as it goes, clearing the way for commercial interests to eventually set up shop along those new roadways.

It was President Dwight Eisenhower whose signature created NASA, but he's more often associated with another major project: the interstate freeway system that helped change the commercial landscape.

Six decades later, NASA may play a similar role by ceding some of its dominance in space to markets in hopes the agency will be liberated to take us even further.

"Let the contractors develop the hardware to reduce the cost and enhance the reliability of space systems, especially the cost of getting to and from Earth orbit," said Nye. "We want NASA to explore."

CNET's James Martin contributed to this report.

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