Today it was announced that SpaceX has signed an agreement with NASA’s Stennis Space Center to test a new methane engine there beginning in 2014.
This story is significant in two ways:
First, it demonstrates SpaceX’s continuing and aggressive research and development program. This company built the first new American rocket engine in decades, the Merlin engine, then immediately upgraded it. They built the first new American rocket in decades, the Falcon 9, and then immediately upgraded it. Now they are developing a new upper stage rocket engine, the Raptor engine.
Rather than resting on their laurels, SpaceX is showing us all how a successful and competitive company should operate in the open market.
Second, the story, mostly pushed by press releases out of various government offices such as the link above, illustrates how private space is now in control of our space “program.” Rather than dictate what gets built, which is what NASA had been doing for decades with relatively little to show for it, the government now builds what the private sector needs. SpaceX is developing a new engine, and it has hired NASA’s Stennis center to help them test it. Stennis desperately needs work, so they are glad to do it. And they are glad to do it as SpaceX dictates.
Nor is SpaceX the only company that has hired Stennis. See this story. Aerojet Rockdyne and Rolls Royce both have lease agreements to use Stennis. This suggests that if NASA facilities are smart, they can justify their existence and actually make money by providing services to the private sector.
We could even privatize these government facilities! What a concept.