Many who think of space consider it to be an entirely new frontier where everything is possible. NASA has been pioneering the United States' mission for space for decades now, with several milestones already under its belt. However, it has had to accept a new frontier of its own recently - the move to commercial spaceflight and partnering with several private space companies.
Although many initially doubted this strategy's success, the numbers are in, and NASA appears to have done relatively well. This is the decade that many believe humanity will crack commercial spaceflight and begin sending people to space entirely. However, from a financial standpoint, commercial spaceflight has indeed helped NASA's vision.
The Mission Begins
Last year, NASA and Elon Musk's SpaceX aerospace giant reached a milestone when they launched astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley into space in a Crew Dragon craft. The mission marked the first time that a private space company would launch humans into orbit. It also set off a new age for the space industry - one where commercial spaceflight becomes easier and more accessible to people.
The mission isn't an entirely new one. In 2006, NASA chose to switch its method of sending supplies to the International Space Station. Instead of using government-owned rockets like the Space Shuttle, it would let commercial and private space companies handle the task instead. Mike Griffin, the agency's administrator at the time, got $500 million in seed funding and gave most of it to SpaceX and Orbital ATK to supply the Space Station periodically. This was part of the "Commercial Orbital Transportation Services" initiative.
As part of the initiative, each company will use its rockets and cargo vehicles for supply trips. SpaceX would use its Falcon 9 rocket, while Orbital ATK would use its Cygnus capsule.
Since then, however, this initiative has diversified and expanded into other sub-divisions of spaceflight. At the same time, it has multiplied into a multi-billion-dollar sector. Now, NASA isn't just looking for private partners to help ferry goods - it is also partnering with companies to transport people directly, as evidenced by the Crew Dragon experiment.
The agency has also looked into commercial services that will send supplies to the moon - and, perhaps one day, land people on the celestial object too. What began as a gamble has paid off significantly, and it is doubtful even Griffin knew what he was unleashing when he started.
Examining the Raw Numbers
As for the raw figures, a study from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in 2017 estimated running costs that NASA had incurred on its projects concerning those it had given to private companies - especially SpaceX. The study found that NASA has spent $230 million to help develop SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsule, while the Cygnus capsule from Orbital ATK cost the agency $251 million.
Compare that to NASA’s deep space capsule, which it tagged Orion. The Orion is expected to cost NASA a staggering $19.5 billion. To be fair, it is much more advanced than the other two vehicles. Orion is intended to go into deep space with unique instruments and even a life-support system.
Still, the study examines the cost of comparable vehicles to the Orion, which are being created as part of the Commercial Crew program. SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner were highlighted. The study projects that they would cost NASA $2.2 billion and $3.27 billion each. Operational costs were also relatively smaller - Crew Dragon and CST-100 had $308 million and $418 million in operating expenses, while Orion would cost almost $1 billion for each flight.
Putting Critics to Rest
For now, there are definitely critics of commercial spaceflight. Many of them believe that NASA should remain separate from these private companies' efforts - especially since firms like Virgin Galactic, Lockheed Martin, and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin have now put their hats into the ring. These critics believe that the increasing number of private companies will turn spaceflight into a capitalist race-off, and NASA should regulate the fledgling industry.
There is also the fact that commercial spaceflight has disrupted the traditional business models of aviation giants like Boeing. These firms initially got lucrative contracts and basked in the glow of their relationships with NASA. Now, they have to compete to keep up. Such disruption has been swift, and some critics don't overly believe that things should work this way.
Then, there is the general distrust for the billionaire class that has now proliferated the commercial spaceflight scene. Muck, Bezos, and Virgin's Richard Branson - among others - have gotten significant criticism for seemingly wanting to monopolize everything they find. Soon enough, they might take these capitalistic tendencies to the literal stratosphere.
Still, it is worth noting that these criticisms have their counters. For one, allowing private companies to play in the commercial spaceflight sandbox has brought incredible dividends. Musk championed the idea of reusable rockets many years ago, allowing NASA to save money on each rocket design.
At the time, NASA had been using rockets designed in Russia for just about every mission. With the Russians raising prices at will, SpaceX's innovation has already saved NASA hundreds of billions. Musk and SpaceX also delivered NASA the ship needed to take the two astronauts into space last year.
With increased competition from Blue Origin and other companies, innovation is only going to get better. NASA might still need to act as a regulator to control industry activities and curb these companies' capitalistic tendencies, but allowing them to operate will only deliver more financial gains to the agency in the long run.