Since the establishment of space travel, only three countries have been able to launch humans into space. The first person to travel into space was a Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961, who orbited the earth in Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961. Only weeks later, the United States launched its first manned spacecraft, Freedom 7, carrying astronaut Alan Shepherd.
It wouldn’t be until 2003 that China would launch its first manned mission, Shenzhou 5, taking Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei on a successful 21-hour mission into space and back. Since then, many space agencies have achieved a great feat, but no one has been able to come close to NASA in terms of success.
In the midst of this space race, Elon Musk gave birth to a private space company, SpaceX, which is dominating the business aspect of space exploration today. The private space agency has become so successful that people are actually comparing it with NASA.
Is SpaceX really challenging NASA, or they just work side by side for a better future of the human race? This article will help you to understand the major differences between NASA and SpaceX, and how the future looks like for both of them and space research as a whole.
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 the space travel when it launched the Apollo 11 into space and made the first successful moon landing.
SpaceX, a brainchild of tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, was founded back in May 2002. His philosophy behind the SpaceX is “making life multi-planetary” by eventually colonizing Mars. Over the years, in his various interviews, Musk has stated that human extinction on planet earth is inevitable.
What’s in the Future?
NASA is currently working on multiple high-profile space projects. Some significant missions include NISAR (NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar), a joint venture between NASA and ISRO, to develop a dual-frequency synthetic aperture radar satellite for remote sensing. Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) and Euclid, both entitled to investigate the dark energy.
Back in 2006, NASA announced an ambitious mission to develop a permanent base on the moon’s surface, but was terminated by the former President Barack Obama and directed a generic focus on manned missions to asteroids and Mars, as well as extending support for the ISS.
According to NASA’s estimation, it wouldn’t be until 2030 that it will be able to transport humans to the Red planet.
The private space exploration entity SpaceX, on the other hand, has set high targets for the next decade. The company vowed to develop a reusable launch system that can be used promptly.
Musk has also stated that one of his major goals is to improve the cost to access 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 also proclaimed that within 50-100 years, its Interplanetary Transport system will be transporting 1 million people to Mars. With today’s available technology, sending one man into the Red planet would cost around $10 billion.
On average, from 1958 to 2012, NASA’s annual budget has been approximately 1% of the federal budget. Only for a brief period, it’s budget allocation witnessed a surge due to the Apollo mission in 1966, peaking at 4.41%. For the Fiscal Year 2020, NASA has got $22.629 billion from the federal government, which represents 0.48% of all US government spending.
Until May 2012, SpaceX had operated with total funding of $1 billion in its first ten years of operation. This includes many private equities and Musk’s own investment of around $100 million. The remainder has come from payments on long-term launch contracts and development contracts. The company also enjoyed many federal and state subsidies, including huge 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.
As of 2019, the value of SpaceX has risen to $33 billion. The detailed budget of the company is not available as it is not a public company.
According to Morgan Stanley, the majority of SpaceX’s value comes from its Starlink satellites. As of 2020, it is worth about $42 billion. Its travel business is worth about $9 billion, and the launch business is valued at $1 billion. Deep space exploration, for now, worths nothing. However, if Musk’s Starlink internet plan works, SpaceX could be a $175 billion company.
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 (second manned mission), Voyager, and Pioneer missions are some of its longstanding achievements.
NASA has launched more than 100 crewed missions and well over 1000 unmanned missions into space since its establishment. Its last manned space shuttle launch was in 2011. But perhaps NASA’s greatest recent success was the successful launch of its Mars rover in 2011 and its ongoing work on that planet.
Moreover, we should not forget about NASA’s contribution towards Global Climate Change studies, which has caused some recent rift with the current U.S government.
Even though SpaceX is new in this field, it has already earned respect among other space agencies around the world. Its grandest creation to this date is the Falcon Heavy payload rocket, which is designed to carry people. It also has a spacecraft named Dragon, which is designed to carry payloads, but the company is pretty determined to alter it 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 became the first private space agency to send a human-rated spacecraft to space and the first private agency to autonomously dock a spacecraft to the ISS. Musk has also unveiled the company’s plan to build the world’s largest, fully reusable rocket, currently scheduled for the 2020s.
The history of NASA’s space missions is a fascinating story, and it’s the reason for much of 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. Will NASA make any major changes in its future projects?
Many think that NASA should continue exploring the 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?