Back To The Drawing Board: Why SpaceX Success Demands NASA Revolution


Sunday’s breathtaking return of the American astronauts aboard Elon Musk’s crewed Dragon space capsule was a moment of great national pride. While space enthusiasts and dreamers around the world applauded, however, there were people taking bows – and credit – that frankly should not have been. If our political leadership on both sides of the aisle could recognize the real lesson of this success, instead of gloating in their misdirected self-congratulations, they would seize this opportunity to take the next step and completely remake how NASA leads human spaceflight into the future. While NASA has begun slowly changing its mindset and indeed been working more with private companies, it has not, by a long shot, done enough to further our country’s position as a leader in the 2nd Space Race. There needs to be, in short, a revolution in NASA affairs.

Of the many challenges the previous administration inherited in 2009, one was a space policy long on vision but short on funding. A blue-ribbon panel was quickly commissioned with unprecedented budgetary rigor and led by the greatest technical space leaders of the time, including General Les Lyles, Dr. Wanda Austin, and the esteemed industrialist Norm Augustine.  Their report to the President highlighted many recommendations, the most significant of which was that the flagship Constellation program, the delight of the previous administration, was entirely unaffordable.

Congress and much of NASA, the very institution that brought rocket science into our living rooms last century, had together become the face of an overwhelming adversity to change. One leader challenged this status quo and, backed by a handful of policy mavericks, decided to pursue a risky next step. Lori Garver, the deputy administrator of NASA at the time, persuaded enough of these naysayers to support her vision of a Commercial Crew Program, a controversial idea to harness the new space industry’s spirit of adventure by redirecting some funding to restore government faith in America’s free market leadership instead of NASA’s politburo. Garver’s initiative and considerable fortitude set into motion an epic contest and on Sunday we witnessed the winner at the finish line.

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SpaceX’s has won the contest and by besting Boeing has affirmed the thesis that the time is right to toss out the old NASA model and pivot to a privatization of most of NASA’s programs. Some of that is already underway, with the venerable Lockheed Martin in a close partnership with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin on their lunar lander project and Amazon’s ground stations. What’s now necessary is taking inventory of every program and project within NASA and rethinking how they should be restructured to encourage discovery and exploration while simultaneously promoting free market expansion into the cosmos.

To strengthen American leadership and freedom in space, government policymakers must advance our nation’s superior space competency with private capital and competition to lead economically. This government led privatization should reward sustainable businesses and reject political backroom deal making. An economic sector of competitive, self-directed but lightly-regulated companies, independent of institutional inertia or political patronage.

The quintessential NASA program of this type needs little introduction but is indicative of many others less noticed. As part of the compromise to secure Congressional support for the Commercial Crew competition, NASA announced the Congressionally mandated “old NASA” style SLS program in 2011, boasting an ambition to build the largest rocket in history – even bigger than the massive Saturn V. Though essentially just a recombining of legacy shuttle componentry, the program has been beset with cost overruns and program delays with no end in sight. While insiders have viewed the SLS project and many others like it as “the bridge to nowhere,” the corporatist and institutional inertia has been full-throated in its denunciation of SpaceX. Today, no one is sure whether SLS will ever deliver, but the program nonetheless gets plenty of political support to bring Soviet-style jobs back home.  

Many ask what the real difference is between traditional space companies and these commercial or private, so-called next-generation companies. Both hire from the same universities, and quite often next generation founders spring from the traditional. They both perform on contracts with the government, though the next generation prefer competitive fixed price contracts to enable a more streamlined management structure. The principal difference is that the companies in the new economy are founded and self-directed with a purpose and vision of their own choosing, not ones directed by a government mission. Unlike the earlier generation of companies that were lured with “cost plus” contracts to leave commercial aviation or truck building to develop bombers and tanks, this new generation of companies exists for its own unique vision. They are also eager to leverage their founding vision and purpose to help solve national needs at competitive, fixed prices. These companies are less interested in management advice from Washington bureaucrats and more interested in competing to leverage their potential and deliver eye-watering capabilities, much like SpaceX just did.

Our traditional Cold War space industry isn’t bad but, just as with any other wartime industry, it desperately needs to be transformed to be relevant for the 21st century. We have the best engineering talent in the world that is far superior to any other. Unfortunately, most of them are still working in a Soviet style industry that only grows when the government does. A pivot to further unleashing private industry and following its lead rather than directing it will elicit even more clear winners. And once it is done, there will be no turning back.

Last century’s political industrial complex was necessary to win the first space race but is now an obstacle to winning the second. The government must shift to supporting and leveraging commercial ambitions (just as NASA demonstrated with SpaceX and Lockheed is doing with Blue Origin) to achieve even greater technically ambitious dreams. NASA’s new model must prioritize commercial growth to achieve these goals and not compete against it with programs like SLS, best tossed into the ash heap of history. It must be one that promotes free enterprise by leveraging entrepreneurial vision and private capital; that rewards well-led companies and not just the well postured; and that prevents politicians from choosing the winners and losers of the Final Frontier.

The U.S. commercial space industry has now shown that it can replace the space shuttle at a fraction of the cost. We must go the rest of the way, and NASA must be reborn for a new purpose and a new century’s vision. By repurposing every mission in this fashion, the terrestrial free market economy will expand responsibly with even greater earth science knowledge and an interplanetary economy of unlimited growth will be unleashed, the ultimate dream since the first telescope pointed towards the heavens. Lori Garver’s grand experiment is complete, and the results are in. It’s time to go back to the drawing board to save billions, promote real commerce and unleash the America’s greatest asset: our spirit of adventure and the freedom to run, soar, and now orbit – as far as our hearts will take us.

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