It’s SpaceX versus Boeing, and so far the private sector is overtaking the government-backed aerospace giant.
It is the best of times for SpaceX, it’s the worst of times for Boeing. This is the age of free market wisdom, this is the age of government-backed aerospace-industrial complex madness. It’s the spring of hope for a system that sent high school dropout billionaire Jared Isaacman into orbit, it’s the winter of desperation for a more traditional aerospace program that remains mired on the ground.
SpaceX, the rocket company of billionaire Elon Musk, sent ordinary people (a medical assistant, a community college professor and a data engineer) as well as the billionaire founder of a payment processing company into orbit for three days. in a mission called Inspiration4. Their landing, off the coast of Florida, marked the first time the Americans had achieved such a feat since Apollo 9 orbiting the moon. And when the capsule hit the ocean, private sector astronauts heard mission control say, “Thank you for flying SpaceX.”
These ordinary astronauts entered orbit at an altitude of 366 miles, above both the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope. And they climbed there on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
The trip doesn’t just show that virtually anyone can be an astronaut. It also reveals a fundamental difference in philosophy between SpaceX’s freer success story versus more traditional and de facto government-run aerospace companies such as Boeing.
The contrast became evident when, shortly after SpaceX’s triumphant mission, NASA officials announced that the heavy Boeing CST-100 Starliner, which the US space agency heavily supported, had been delayed by one. year due to a problem with its valves.
NASA engineers still don’t know why parts of the spacecraft’s propulsion system are stuck, and they had to delay an unmanned test flight of the vehicle as a result. Meanwhile, actor Tom Cruise plots with SpaceX to shoot a movie on the International Space Station. He recently spoke on a call with the Inspiration4 astronauts.
In the race to put the first privately launched human into orbit, SpaceX beat Boeing and its Starliner, while spending $ 1 billion less, in 2020. It’s a feat unmatched by all but three of the countries, and SpaceX reduced the cost of sending a human to orbit by about 95% compared to the government-run space shuttle. The government backed the wrong horse in this race. It was a small step for a man, a giant step for capitalism.
Nowadays, NASA is no longer able to fly astronauts into orbit on its own. He had to pay Russia up to $ 90 million in 2020 for a seat on their rockets. But rather than paying the Russians, NASA now plans to simply pay private American companies for future trips to orbit, throwing SpaceX and Boeing into fierce competition.
After working with the space agency for decades, Boeing was hired in 2010 to develop NASA’s astronaut transport system. It was a classic aerospace contract from a big government. Then, in October 2019, Boeing botched an unmanned attempt to reach the space station when its spacecraft failed to accurately fire its thrusters. All apparently due to a glitch clock. (Yes, seriously.) And that’s when SpaceX took the lead.
Boeing was deeply involved in NASA’s Apollo program, which sent astronauts to the moon, and it is currently paid nearly $ 9.1 billion to develop the space agency’s space launch system. The government is forcing taxpayers to pay $ 860 million to aerospace mega-companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin just to exist as well. This tight entanglement with government can be lucrative, but it generates layers of bureaucracy that have also hampered the progress of these entrepreneurs.
SpaceX receives grants and of course works with the government, but the vast majority of its contracts are fixed price, which means the company has an incentive to spend less. Most Boeing contracts, on the other hand, are “cost plus,” where a percentage of the total amount spent is guaranteed to the company as pure profit, which encourages budget overruns.
“The team is still in the process of troubleshooting,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of the new space operations mission leadership, during a call about the reorganization of NASA. “My hunch is that it would probably be more likely next year, but we’re still working on that timeline.” NASA may reconsider its relationship with entrepreneurs, raising the stakes in the private sector’s space race.
The threat to Boeing’s dominance represents a huge change from the situation in October 2016, when Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg pledged to beat billionaire Elon Musk’s rocket company on Mars after Project Starliner has reached major milestones. “I have no doubts that the first person to set foot on Mars will get there aboard a Boeing rocket,” Muilenburg told a conference, a prediction that seems much less likely to come true today.
SpaceX and Boeing are both capitalizing on huge advancements in reusable rockets, a major development that has drastically reduced the price of orbiting. This sparked a fierce rivalry between the companies, with SpaceX even accusing a Boeing joint venture of sabotage that led to the destruction of a rocket. The companies are also competing fiercely for US military contracts, in addition to those from NASA.
No matter which company wins, keeping the private sector vibrant and limiting government bureaucracy can be the key to future breakthroughs.
In any case, the history of these two space flights shows that competition and innovation from the private sector could soon take humanity to the stars. To rephrase Dickens again: It’s a good, much better thing that we are doing, than we have ever done; it’s a much, much better adventure than we’ve ever had.