Private space in control

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.

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17 comments

  • Ziv

    It is great to see Spacex going from strength to strength. Those guys are knocking down the door to get to a cheaper way to LEO.
    Or as Buzz would put it, “To Infinity! And Beyond!”

  • Mitchell

    Even a casual examination of the details shows what a great job SpaceX and private industry are doing in getting us up off of Earth. I like to do the simple “people we put in Space each year” comparison.

    2006
    NASA – 20
    Private Industry- 0

    2007
    NASA- 21
    Private Industry- 0

    2008- 28
    Private Industry- 0

    2009
    NASA- 27
    Private Industry- 0

    2010
    NASA- 19
    Private Industry- 0

    2011
    NASA-16
    Private Industry-0

    2012
    NASA- 0
    Private Industry- 0

    2013
    NASA- 0
    Private Industry- 0

    NASA simply cannot match the consistency of private industry. Private spaceflight is the best way to go, as long as you don’t actually care about getting people into space.

    • Since NASA’s count needs to have dead astronauts accounted for–all killed by an institutional culture that politically had no reason to fear a just accounting of their murderous stupidity–and the Senate Launch System (sorry that should be NASA) has no prospect (and deserves none) of raising their numbers; and barring political intereference by the likes of you, SPACEX will certainly raise it’s numbers into the high tens and even hundreds by the end of decade…I conclude you are a Lockmart bitter ended quite aware of you own useless obsolescence.

      • Edward

        I have to agree with DH and Robert on this one. Except that I think that at best Obama is at best incompetent, corrupt, *and* malicious (the worst is hard to describe, but it is as though he is holding us over the edge so that we are looking into the abyss, hoping that he does not drop us in). One of his few good moves was to encourage commercial space companies.

        NASA did not start from scratch, as the commercial manned-space companies are doing, building their own hardware from scratch. NASA had a fifteen-year legacy of rocketry to start with. NASA was first successful with the rockets that the Germans (Von Braun, et. al.) had already made (Explorer 1 on a Juno, and Alan Shepard on a Redstone), and later with the rockets made by the American engineers (although the Apollo Saturn rockets were also Von Braun’s).

        All four commercial manned space companies are working with a bureaucracy that NASA did not have to face in the early days, the FAA and NASA, who are doing more for astronaut safety than NASA did with Mercury. The safety rules and regulations for commercial manned space are new and are still being created, two problems that these companies have to deal with. NASA also had the resources of an entire nation to spend on its manned program, but these companies have limited budgets made up of government incentive payments and any private funds that they may raise.

        Remember, too, that these companies are trying to accomplish what only three nations on Earth have ever managed to do: put people into orbit and return them safely again. Even Europe was unable to accomplish this, though they had their Hermes program.

        Without the interference of government requirements documents and last minute changes (which contributed to a recent well-publicized failure in the online world), Orbital Sciences and SpaceX have recently demonstrated that they, too, can put payloads into space and guide them into the same orbit and location as the ISS – again, something that only governments (I think four, plus the Chinese with their own space station) have accomplished so far.

        So, Mitchel, I do not share your pessimism that private spaceflight will not get people into space – mainly because private spaceflight already HAS gotten people into space. You have forgotten about SpaceShipOne. Two different men went into suborbital space on three different occasions – something else that only nations had accomplished up to that point. Let go of your pessimism, these steely-eyed rocket men are doing great things.

        TomDPerkins, I hate to rain on your parade, but as an alumnus of Lockmart – er, we’re supposed to say Lockheed Martin – there are plenty of us at that company who cheer-on the “competition.” Every space failure diminishes space exploration and exploitation; every success encourage them.

  • DH

    @Mitchell: What an idiotic comparison. You could just as well list the number of people year by year flying in lighter-than-air craft versus heavier-than-air craft as of 1900 and conclude that heavier-than-air flight was hopeless. NASA has been around for 50+ years and has spent billions. SpaceX has been around for just over 10 years and has spent millions. Give them another 10 and we can revisit your comparison.

  • George Turner

    Actually DH, his chart is rather useful when you extend it into the SLS era, where NASA will launch perhaps 5 people a year or every other year, out to perhaps 2030 or 2035. So the NASA graph was relatively flat and stable at 20 to 30 people per year during the Shuttle era (with a few missed years), then fell to zero, and will rise back to 3 to 5 and stay there over the next few decades. Meanwhile, the commercial providers will pick up much of the ISS traffic and other new opportunities, so their curve will rise from zero and reach unknown heights.

  • Bob

    Actually, the privatization started before Obama got in office. he deserves no credit.

    • The commercial program was started during the Bush administration, albeit reluctantly. The Obama administration has had the wisdom to not only maintain it but to accelerate it. They deserve that credit, at least.

      (For those of who read my work regularly, the placing of the words “Obama administration” in close proximity with the word “wisdom” will appear shocking. Some will be thinking, “Have we entered an alternate universe?” It is no secret that I generally consider the Obama administration and this President incompetent at best, corrupt at worst. However, when it comes to private manned space and NASA, the administration has generally had the right idea.)

  • Joe

    Obama’s vision for NASA is Muslim outreach!

    • I think I’m starting to remember why I stopped coming here.

      Bob, it’d be great if you could categorize your posts so people could get the space-related without the Obama bashing. I’m not saying the Obama bashing isn’t warranted, but perhaps if you had separate sections you wouldn’t scare away everyone disinterested in reading it – leaving only people like Joe here who obviously have no interest in space.

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