Commercial Space Industry Blasts Off

Government and Private Industry in Space

By Neena Kapur

The federal government’s decision to cut NASA’s funding by over 20% was no doubt one that received much critical response. But that’s old news. What’s new, though, is the resulting stimulation and advancement in the US commercial space industry. In light of their decreased budget, last year NASA discontinued its space shuttle program. However, in order to continue innovative design and advancement in space shuttle development, NASA invested $1.1 billion in three privates space exploration companies: Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Sierra Nevada Corporation, and The Boeing Company.

NASA’s has two primary goals for distributing these funds. First, it seeks to continue its program for developing US human spaceflight capabilities. Second, because of the budget cuts, NASA is currently relying on Russian spaceships for travel to the International Space Station, where seats per US astronaut are priced at $63 million. With that in mind, funding private shuttle development will hopefully result in commercialized spaceships with cheaper seats for astronauts.

This privatization of the space industry provides an opportunity to look at how technologies develop differently under state-sponsorship versus private companies. During the Cold War, under state-sponsorship, space technologies were developed at a rapid pace and amazing innovations were made. The government kept pouring money in, and artificial satellites, Apollo missions, and images of the earth resulted. However, today, with the lack of international political competition the urgency to develop new technologies has significantly dropped off. That is not to say that NASA hasn’t been doing great things since then, but the governmental emphasis on space exploration has certainly decreased. And, as a result, when the government found no practical and immediate use for NASA, space innovation suffered.

With commercial space companies now in the spotlight, though, rapid developments are being made with far less funding than what NASA received. Just recently, SpaceX made headlines with its Grasshopper rocket, a vertical take-off and land launch vehicle that they aim to develop into shuttle that can launch humans into space, and return to earth full intact. This is an example of the benefits of technological development under the wing of private companies. Commercializing technologies results in products that are cheaper to produce. The Chief of NASA, Charles Bolden, stated, “By investing in American companies and American ingenuity we are spurring commercial companies to deliver more bang for the buck.” This is exactly right. Internal competition among space exploration companies fosters efficient and relatively inexpensive production.

Though it is true that a government-sponsored industry often flourishes at a faster rate than a privatized one (look at supercomputers in China, for example), it is also true that if there isn’t external international competition motivating some sort of technology “race” then that industry will suffer. Commercialization of the space industry in this day and age may actually be more beneficial than a government-funded NASA, as there will always be internal competition motivating further innovation. Watch out world, we may be closer to vacationing on the moon than we think.

Neena Kapur is a Sophomore at Tufts University.