NASA vs SpaceX – How Different They Are?

Since space travel began, only three countries have sent people into space. The first person to travel there was Yuri Gagarin, a Russian cosmonaut, in 1961. He circled the Earth in Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961. Shortly after, the United States launched its first manned spacecraft, Freedom 7, with astronaut Alan Shepherd on board.

It wasn’t until 2003 that China joined the group, launching its first manned mission, Shenzhou 5. Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei successfully completed a 21-hour mission into space and safely returned. While many space agencies have achieved notable feats since then, none have matched NASA’s level of success.

In the midst of this space race, Elon Musk founded SpaceX, a private space company that now plays a dominant role in the space exploration business. This private space agency has become so successful that people are actually comparing it with NASA.

But is SpaceX truly challenging NASA, or are they collaborating for the greater good of humanity?

This article aims to clarify the significant distinctions between NASA and SpaceX, shedding light on their respective objectives, missions, and notable accomplishments.

NASA vs. SpaceX: A Brief Introduction

NASA (short for National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was created in 1958 under the National Space Act signed by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. According to the act, NASA’s space exploration would forever be “devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.

It wasn’t until July 20, 1969, that NASA pioneered space travel when it launched Apollo 11 into space and made the first successful moon landing.

Elon Musk, a tech entrepreneur, founded SpaceX in May 2002 with a visionary goal—to make life multi-planetary, particularly by establishing a human presence on Mars. Musk’s philosophy is rooted in the belief that human extinction on Earth is an inevitable threat, a perspective he has shared in numerous interviews over the years.

Current Focus

NASA is actively engaged in various high-profile space projects. Among these missions is NISAR (NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar), a collaborative effort with ISRO to create a dual-frequency synthetic aperture radar satellite for advanced remote sensing.

NASA is also involved in projects like the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) and Euclid, both designed to explore and study dark energy.

In 2006, NASA revealed an ambitious plan to establish a permanent base on the moon’s surface. However, this initiative was halted by then-President Barack Obama, who redirected the agency’s attention toward manned missions to asteroids and Mars and extended support for the International Space Station (ISS).

As per NASA’s projections, the goal of transporting humans to the Red Planet won’t be realized before 2030. Several precursor missions, including robotic exploration and scientific studies, are planned to gather essential data and test technologies necessary for future crewed Mars missions.

The private space exploration entity SpaceX, on the other hand, has set high targets for the next decade. The company vowed to develop a fully reusable launch system that can be used promptly.

Musk has also stated that one of his major goals is to improve the cost of accessing the space, ultimately by a factor of ten. In May 2020, the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft launched two NASA astronauts, Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, to the International Space Station, starting a new era in human spaceflight.

SpaceX has big plans to fly Crew Dragon to space with humans later this decade. Proving that they can launch humans safely into space is a milestone in that journey.

The company has declared its ambitious vision of using the Interplanetary Transport System to transport 1 million people to Mars within the next 50-100 years. Presently, using the existing technology, sending one person to the Red Planet would cost around $10 billion.

Money Matters

On average, from 1958 to 2000, NASA’s annual budget accounted for about 1% of the federal budget. However, from 2000 to 2023, this share decreased to 0.5%. Notably, during the Apollo mission in 1966, there was a brief surge in NASA’s budget allocation, peaking at 4.41%.

In the Fiscal Year 2023, NASA received $25.4 billion from the federal government, representing a 5.6% year-on-year increase.

NASA contributes significantly to the economy, generating over $71.2 billion in total economic output annually. It supports about 339,600 jobs across the nation, which results in nearly $8 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues. 

As for SpaceX, the company had operated with total funding of $1 billion in its first ten years of operation. This funding comprised private equities, Elon Musk’s personal investment of around $100 million, payments from long-term launch and development contracts, and various federal and state subsidies, including significant loans.

In 2015, SpaceX raised over $1 billion in funding from Google and Fidelity, establishing the company valuation at approximately $12 billion. There was speculation over SpaceX that it would go public after an IPO in 2012, but it was soon dismissed by Elon Musk.

By 2019, SpaceX’s value had surged to $33 billion and reached $42 billion in 2020. The detailed budget of the company is not available as it is not a public company.

As of 2023, SpaceX achieved a remarkable valuation of $180 billion. According to Morgan Stanley, the majority of SpaceX’s value comes from its launch facilities and Starlink satellites. The Mars project, at present, holds no monetary value for the company as it is not generating revenue.

Achievements

Well, there is an almost never-ending list of NASA’s achievements over the years, but we will try to keep it brief.

Apart from its legendary Apollo missions, one of which made a human presence on the moon surface possible, Project Gemini (the second manned mission), Voyager, and Pioneer missions are some of its longstanding achievements.

NASA has successfully launched more than 165 crewed missions and well over 1100 unmanned missions into space since its establishment. But perhaps NASA’s greatest recent success was the successful launch of its Mars rover in 2011 and its ongoing work on that planet.

Currently, NASA is working on 80+ science missions. 

Moreover, we should not forget about NASA’s contribution towards Global Climate Change studies, which has caused some recent rift with the current US government.

Despite being relatively new to the space exploration arena, SpaceX has garnered respect from global space agencies.

Its grandest creation to this date is the Falcon Heavy payload rocket, which is designed to carry people. The company’s spacecraft, Dragon, initially designed for carrying payloads, is now being modified for human space travel.

In 2010, SpaceX became the first privately owned company to successfully complete a space mission. Five years later, in 2015, the company achieved an unprecedented feat after executing a guided landing of an orbital rocket’s first stage on land. They repeated this success on the ocean platform.

In 2019, SpaceX further solidified its pioneering status by becoming the first private space agency to send a human-rated spacecraft to space and autonomously dock it with the ISS.

SpaceX’s Starship rocket 

Musk has also unveiled the company’s plan to build the world’s largest, fully reusable rocket, currently scheduled for the 2020s.

Another significant milestone occurred in 2023 when SpaceX launched Starship, recognized as the world’s tallest and most powerful rocket ever built.

Government Funding vs Commercial Innovation

Since NASA operates as a federal agency within the US government, its budget is subjected to government appropriations. Its priorities are often influenced by changing administrations, political considerations, and budget allocations. 

This dynamic often results in shifts in focus and mission objectives, as seen in the transition from the Space Shuttle era to the emphasis on Mars exploration and, subsequently, to the Artemis program’s focus on returning humans to the Moon.

SpaceX, on the other hand, has no government control. Led by Elon Musk, who holds 42% equity and 79% voting control rights in the company, SpaceX has more autonomy in decision-making and strategic directions.

Since it’s a private company, it has pursued a more commercially driven model for space exploration. By developing reusable rocket technology and actively engaging in commercial satellite launches, SpaceX has generated revenue outside of government contracts. 

This financial independence has enabled SpaceX to pursue ambitious goals like the development of the Starship spacecraft, with a primary focus on Mars colonization. 

Quick Comparision Table 

NASA  SpaceX
Founded in 1958  Founded in 2002
Independent agency funded by the US government  Private aerospace manufacturer and space transportation company
Focuses on scientific exploration, research, and space discovery Focuses on reducing space transportation costs and Mars colonization
Annual budget is over $25.38 billion Not publically disclosed, but it spends nearly $1.3 billion on R&D
Notable achievements include the Moon landing, the Voyager program, Mars Rovers, and the James Webb Space Telescope. First privately developed liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit, reusable rocket technology, Crew Dragon manned missions
Currently focuses on Moon and Mars exploration  Commercial satellite launches, crewed spaceflights, and starship development
Follows government protocols and congressional approval Agile decision-making, driven by CEO Elon Musk

Final Verdict

The history of NASA’s space missions is a fascinating story, contributing significantly to our understanding of space. There is no doubt that without this veteran organization, we would have a primitive knowledge of our surroundings.

For decades, NASA has been a cornerstone of space research in America. But now that Elon Musk’s SpaceX has arrived on the big screen, it will be interesting to see how they will proceed in the near future. Whether NASA will make major changes in its future projects is a topic of interest.

Many think that NASA should continue exploring deep space, while manned landing and space tourism should be done by SpaceX. What is your take? What do you think should be ideal for them?

Read More 

What if NASA Had The US Military Budget?

Can I Buy SpaceX Stock? How Much Is It Worth Today?

Written by
Bipro Das

I am a content writer and researcher with over seven years of experience covering all gaming and anime topics. I also have a keen interest in the retail sector and often write about the business models/strategies of popular brands.

I started content writing after completing my graduation. After writing tech-related things and other long-form content for 2-3 years, I found my calling with games and anime. Now, I get to find new games and write features and previews.

When not writing for RankRed, I usually prefer reading investing books or immersing myself in Europa Universalis 4. But I am currently interested in some new JRPGs as well.

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7 comments
  • Apollo 11 was the first successful manned mission to the surface of the moon. It was not the last. There have been 12 US men who have walked on the moon in 6 separate missions starting with Apollo 11 and ending with Apollo 17. (Apollo 13 of course never made it to the surface)

    I also believe far to many Americans fail to understand the contribution to space exploration that NASA makes on a daily basis without any need of manned space flight. Space X is a space transportation company (and a good one thus far) but NASA is a space science agency and they are the envy of the world. Comparing the two companies is not a compliment to Space X, it is an insult to NASA.

    • Rick Holley says:

      Once I read that part I skipped the rest of the article for a few days until my brain demanded I finish it for completeness sake. How can someone claim to make any real comparison when they are so ignorant of the basic facts. ANY quick google search clearly shows that there was far more than one lunar landing made by NASA. This fact strongly implies that the author of this article did very little, if any, actual research. Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 each made successful manned lunar landings.

      SpaceX is heading in the right direction and has what I believe is a very well thought out gameplan to get where they want to go. In the future I fully believe SpaceX will rival NASA in many areas. But I don’t think many of those areas will be basic science areas. SpaceX is a “child” compared to the extremely mature “adult” of NASA and I don’t think SpaceX has any desire to grow into the same type of “adult” that NASA has become. I guess the “comparing apples to oranges” analogy mostly fits here, but I still find many flaws with that analogy :-/

      • Rick Holley says:

        As a little side note for just how important those skipped lunar landing where to the big picture: Apollo 11 spent a total of 2 hours and 31 minutes on the surface outside of the lunar module. The other 5 lunar landings accounted for 77 hours and 57 minutes combined outside their lunar modules (these are called EVAs or extra-vehicular activities.) This article failed to even notice the existence of 96.87% of the total time NASA had astronauts outside walking around on the moon’s surface.

      • I also believe Space X will rival NASA in many areas in the very near future. Still I believe they will rival them in terms of effective and reliable access to space but will fall far short of any thing equaling NASA’s contribution to space science.

        In the next couple of decades how many exoplanets will Space X discover? How many NEOs will they identify and track, How many pictures (and readings) from Saturn, Jupiter, Pluto will they provide, how many craft will they have exploring the surface of Mars, how many crafts will they have orbiting Mars to study it’s atmosphere, how many crafts will they have traveling beyond our solar system, How many studies of our star will they provide, How many images of deep space will they provide, how many studies of black holes, dark matter, cosmic rays, supernova, etc. will they offer to the world of science.

        NASA is a space science agency and they are without rival. You have very correctly pointed out that to many Americans don’t even understand NASA’s accomplishments in space travel how could they possibly understand the science performed as a result of these travels.

        • Apollo 11 was the first successful manned mission to the surface of the moon. It was not the last. There have been 12 US men who have walked on the moon in 6 separate missions starting with Apollo 11 and ending with Apollo 17. (Apollo 13 of course never made it to the surface)

  • dewitt t pettis says:

    today spacex to mars today in Venezuela telepnolgy

  • Apollo 11 was the first successful manned mission to the surface of the moon. It was not the last. There have been 12 US men who have walked on the moon in 6 separate missions starting with Apollo 11 and ending with Apollo 17. (Apollo 13 of course never made it to the surface)