Don’t expect SpaceX-NASA space race

SpaceX, the upstart company, and NASA, the government agency, both have plans to venture to Mars and orbit the moon. But that doesn’t mean they’ve launched a new space race.

In fact, NASA has long been SpaceX’s most important customer, providing contracts to deliver cargo and eventually astronauts to the International Space Station. And the Hawthorne company will need NASA’s technical support to achieve the first of its grand ambitions in deep space.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk acknowledged as much last week, shortly after announcing that SpaceX would launch two private, paying individuals on a weeklong lunar flyby in 2018.

“SpaceX could not do this without NASA,” Musk tweeted. “Can’t express enough appreciation.”

NASA, on the other hand, has come to rely on SpaceX and other companies for transport to the space station as its funding has tightened. In today’s dollars, the agency’s budget is about half what it was at the peak of the 1960s, and down from the 1990s.

In the wake of the SpaceX news, NASA issued a statement that said it is “changing the way it does business through its commercial partnerships,” in part to “free” the agency to focus on rockets and spacecraft to go beyond the moon into deep space.

“The whole idea is that NASA is at the point of a spear,” said Howard McCurdy, professor in the school of public affairs at American University. “It’s like exploration of any terrestrial realm. This is the way the model is supposed to work.”

Indeed, the rapid ascent of Musk and other space industry pioneers is validation of the public-private partnership envisioned when Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984.

By the mid-2000s, NASA was signing contracts with the private sector to fill in for its own funding constraints and the impending retirement of the space shuttle program.

In 2006, SpaceX won its first NASA award for $278 million to help develop the company’s now-workhorse Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule. It later received an additional $118 million, and SpaceX contributed a total of about $454 million of its own funds to finish development, according to a NASA report.

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