The rise of SpaceX, SpaceDev, and other space flight-based private companies has sparked fierce debate over the remaining role of NASA and other government funded space agencies. While some have argued that NASA has reached its expiration date and that the new crop of companies is willing and able to take over the space agency’s exploration duties, NASA possesses unique capabilities in basic research that private companies cannot match. Additionally, many of these companies have weaknesses that hobble their attempts at fulfilling the basic research role.
Private companies are beholden to their bottom lines. Even though most of the companies are privately held and funded, in order to exist their operations must, somehow, generate a profit. Basic research is usually not profitable in the short run and small companies can often ill afford to invest in research for the simple purpose of finding out the unknown. Large companies, the GE’s and IBM’s of the world, often do have large research organizations but all of that research is geared toward future product development – i.e. turning a profit. NASA has no such constraint. As a government agency charged with the research and exploration of space NASA has a free hand to go out and look for things that we don’t know about for the sole purpose of increasing our knowledge. In other words, NASA’s value proposition is different in that they undertake basic scientific inquiry to increase the knowledge base of the nation as it relates to space. The private companies jockeying for position in the new space race have a different value proposition all together. They directly create economic value with their technology development and missions flown.
The dynamic between NASA and private space is similar to that which exists between government run National Labs and private industry. A great number of the revolutionary advances that have driven the technological edge of society forward have started as ideas in the minds of scientists on the government payroll. Basic research conducted at labs such as Sandia, Lawrence Livermore, and Oakridge have yielded cutting edge technologies. But in many cases these technologies have not been well suited for public use. It is at this point that private industry has often stepped in and used their profit motive to turn these basic discoveries into useful products and projects that benefit the public.
A prime example is nuclear energy. Though government labs developed the fundamental theory and hardware to generate nuclear power (and weaponry), it took companies like GE and Westinghouse to create the commercial nuclear reactors that today generate power around the world. NASA can claim a similar direct link from their research to private space development — their HL-20 lifting body research forms the basis of the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser. SpaceX and its compatriots occupy the space of Westinghouse and GE.
One of NASA’s main weaknesses, however, is perfectly complimented by private space. Since NASA is based on terra firma there needs to be a way to get the equipment needed to conduct research into Earth orbit and beyond. Here is where private space shines. Since their developing forte is getting stuff off the surface of the Earth and into orbit NASA can and should use their services to deliver their scientific payloads to their destinations. Recent history shows that NASA attempts to build and maintain workhorse launchers often devolve into expensive, problem laden vehicles that may or may not fulfill their intended mission. Companies like SpaceX, however, have shown that they can build reliable, low cost launchers. Compare the $450 million dollar cost for a single shuttle launch to the $50-$60 million for a Falcon 9 launch.
Neil Degrasse Tyson says it well in his video, “Private enterprise, in the history of civilization, has never led large, expensive, dangerous projects with unknown risks.” For private space there is no economic value in the basic scientific exploration and frontier making that NASA routinely undertakes. Let NASA explore the stars while private space builds the trucks to get them there.