The Space Odyssey: SpaceX vs NASA

Design by Jon Hesse/Iowa State

Dawit Tilahun

With the recent launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and the heightened attention private space programs like SpaceX have been receiving, the future of space travel has excited engineering and non-engineering students alike.

“NASA would break the ground for commercial companies to have an easier path getting into space,” said Tomas Gonzalez-Torres, former NASA Flight Director.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, was established in 1958 with United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower signing the National Aeronautics and Space Act. Since its establishment, NASA has inspired the next generation of innovators paving the way for modern space exploration.

NASA, although an inspiration, has had difficulty focusing on one area of space exploration due to changing White House administrations. This puts a leash on the program’s potential avenues of exploration.

“At this point I don’t know whether NASA or SpaceX would land someone on Mars first,” Gonzalez-Torres said.

With billionaire serial entrepreneur Elon Musk funding the space odyssey to Mars, SpaceX has pushed the frontiers of space travel. Founded in 2002, SpaceX’s primary mission has been to enable people to explore other planets.

SpaceX has been able to accomplish feats that have pushed the envelope of space exploration while simultaneously almost going out of business. With its recent launch of the Falcon Heavy and landing of the Falcon 9’s, SpaceX is set to develop its Big Falcon Rocket (BFR).

“Sometime between the Bush and Obama administration, the White House wanted to off-load some of the work that NASA was doing to private companies in order to make NASA’s priorities clearer,” said Tor Finseth, former White House and SpaceX intern. 

Starting in 2008, private companies would bid for Commercial Resupply Services one contracts to send payloads into space. Soon after, contracts for technology integration equipment with NASA’s systems were needed.

SpaceX was awarded the Commercial Crew Transportation Capablitiy Contract, a $2.6 billion contract, set to send astronauts into space starting in 2018.

“You go to SpaceX and people work very long hours, but the advancements in technology are incredible and the people who work there are brilliant; it is the cutting edge industry,” Finseth said.

Although SpaceX is pushing the frontier of innovation, the course has not always had a clear-cut trajectory.

In 1995, Boeing and Lockheed Martin were given the opportunity to compete for government contracts to send satellites into space. This eventually led to their merger in 2006, creating the United Launch Alliance (ULA).

The United States Air Force then contracted with the ULA to guarantee the purchase of 36 rocket cores. The contract set ULA as the sole provider for the rocket cores, eliminating any room for competition.

In 2014, SpaceX filed a law suit against the contract seeking the right to compete for bids on projects. 

On March 5, SpaceX launched the Falcon 9 reusable rocket for the 50th time, however this time carrying the Hispasat 30W-6 satellite into space.

Hispasat is a Spanish communications satellite that weighs in at six metric tons. The launch of Hispasat marks SpaceX’s heaviest geostationary satellite sent to space.

Unlike NASA, private space companies have a lower burden of transparency to the public, allowing companies like SpaceX to pursue their own missions.

On the flip side, however, NASA has more funding and has paved the way for private companies to pursue these missions, by contracting work out to these private entities.

Although there is some overlap, fundamentally the objectives of NASA and SpaceX are different. With NASA’s objective to benefit the world of science and SpaceX’s objective to push the human frontier; both have garnered the attention of students here at Iowa State.

“The Iowa State Space Society is a club geared toward educating, involve and excite as many people as possible about space flight,” said Alek Erickson, senior in aerospace engineering. 

As the president of the Iowa State Space Society, Erickson heavily involves himself in outreach and educational work to inform and inspire students to look beyond the blue sky and engage with modern scientific advancements.

“The coolest thing I would like to see, which is also the reason I became an aerospace engineer, is to see people living off the planet,” Erickson said.