NASA vs SpaceX - What's The Difference?
To boldly go where no man has gone before is no small feat, given that since the development of space travel, only three countries have launched a human into space. The first was Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who orbited the Earth in the Vostok 1 spacecraft on April 12, 1961. Only weeks later, the US launched their first human into space, Alan Shepard, aboard the Freedom 7. It wouldn’t be until 2003 that China would launch its first man into space, when the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft successfully took astronaut Yang Liwei on a 21-hour mission to space and back. With revitalized space programs and private sector space aspirations, developments over the next few years might just make space great again.
We’ll start with a brief history of each program. NASA, or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was created in 1958 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act. 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 would iconize space travel when it launched the Apollo 11 into space and made the first successful moon landing.
SpaceX, created by multitalented tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, was founded on May 6, 2002. Musk’s mission is to eventually colonize Mars, having stated on numerous occasions that human extinction on planet Earth is inevitable. SpaceX is, of course, a ways away from achieving this goal, and while it hasn’t yet launched flesh and blood into space, it intends to do so in the second quarter of next year. Musk has also said that by 2024, SpaceX will have completed a manned mission to Mars. Moreover, he has boldly proclaimed that in 50 years’ time, his company’s Interplanetary Transport System will be delivering up to a million people to the Mars Colony. Musk may seem overly ambitious compared to NASA, whose website states that it won’t be until the 2030s until its sending people to the Red Planet.
Does this mean NASA and SpaceX are competitors? In some ways yes, as NASA is a government agency and SpaceX is a private entity. The media has referred to this competition as the first public-private space race. The phrase was dubbed, however, not because of Mars ambitions, but after SpaceX announced in 2017 it will be taking people around the moon in 2018. The main difference being that they would not only be trained astronauts but extremely wealthy space tourists. NASA had before this announcement made it known that it too would take tourists around the moon, but not until 2019. The question we now must ask is, who has the most funding and who owns the more advanced technology to make space tourism happen?
In terms of the balance sheet, SpaceX raised over $1 billion in funding in 2015 with 11 investors taking part. Elon Musk himself is worth over 17 billion dollars. The tech maverick has his hand in many pots, including his venture into the self-driving car market with his Tesla Motors company. How does SpaceX actually make money while piling it into developments and the millions it costs to launch? The answer is sending commercial satellites into space, with investor analysis media Motley Fool claiming SpaceX charges around $62 million per launch. SpaceX charges the government around $20 million dollars every time it sends supplies to the International Space Station or launches satellites for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As of June 2017, SpaceX had launched rockets into space 41 times, with this year looking to be a record for the number of space flights. According to SpaceX president, Gwynne Shotwell, the company will launch every two to three weeks in 2017. According to Motley Fool, the total revenue for SpaceX is around $1.3 billion with $195 million in annual profits.
Over the years, NASA has suffered from underfunding, which is one of the reasons why progress regarding the exploration of space has been ponderous since the moon landing. In 2016, President Barack Obama bolstered NASA’s ambitions with an increased budget of around half a billion dollars, bringing the total budget to around 19 billion dollars. This was good news for NASA, spurring its administrator, Charlie Bolden, to announce publicly, “NASA is firmly on a journey to Mars. Make no mistake, this journey will help guide and define our generation." We should note here that while there may be a race to space between the private and the public in SpaceX and NASA, the former and other public companies are working with NASA to make the Mars dream come true.
NASA has had plenty of setbacks besides underfunding. This includes the loss of two of its space shuttles in 1986 and 2003. Fourteen astronauts were killed in total, which didn’t help NASA’s ambitions. NASA has launched well over 100 crewed missions to space and over one thousand unmanned missions. NASA’s last manned space shuttle launch was with its Space Transportation System in 2011.
If you are wondering how astronauts or cosmonauts these days get to the International Space Station and back down to Earth, they travel on the Soyuz Russian spacecraft. Currently NASA is not sending humans into space, although running the space station and most space-related activities are a collaboration between NASA, Russia, and other countries. NASA had originally said it would again be sending humans into space in 2021 aboard the Orion spacecraft, but that date has reportedly been moved forward to 2019. Perhaps NASA’s greatest recent success was the 2011 launch of its planetary rover and the current work it does on Mars. Named the Curiosity, the rover is five times larger than previous rovers that were sent to explore the Red Planet.
You might also be asking yourself, what is the difference between an astronaut and a cosmonaut? The answer is not much; astronauts are trained and certified through NASA and other countries’ space programs, while cosmonauts are trained solely through Russia’s space program.
Let’s now take a look at recent developments and an inventory of rocket stock. SpaceX’s grandest creation so far is its Falcon Heavy large payload rocket which is scheduled to launch within the next month or two. The rocket is designed to carry people, and it’s with this rocket that SpaceX sees the future. SpaceX also has a free-flying spacecraft called Dragon, which was the first commercial spacecraft ever launched by a private company. It currently only carries cargo, but SpaceX believes it will be ready for human space travel by as early as 2018. The Dragon can be carried on the Falcon heavy rocket, or on SpaceX’s other rocket, the Falcon 9.
The history of NASA’s space missions is a long and fascinating story, and it is the reason for much of our understanding of space. For instance, NASA’s space probe, Voyager, reached the outer planets of Jupiter and Saturn, and 39 years later it’s still out there navigating interstellar space. Voyager 2 was launched soon after and was the first spacecraft to rub shoulders with Uranus and Neptune. NASA currently has a space probe, Juno, orbiting Jupiter, while another record was broken in 2015 when NASA’s New Horizons space probe did a fly-by of the Pluto system. Travelling at over 36,000 miles per hour, it made history when it came within 6,000 miles of Pluto. The journey was an astounding 3 billion miles. NASA’s current biggest development is the Orion launch, which will take four astronauts beyond the moon, according to NASA. Other main developments are related to research aboard the International Space Station, global aviation, and emerging technologies such as robotics.
NASA has achieved truly incredible things, but will the organization have to move over for Elon Musk’s amazing spacecraft technologies? In 2017, rumors surfaced that Donald Trump’s administration wants to return to the moon, but will it be with a NASA or SpaceX vehicle? Some critics believe America is big enough for two space programs, public and private, and there’s enough room on the moon for two future landings. Others have suggested NASA should keep its focus on exploring deep space, while manned space travel and the possibility of a human colony on Mars should be handled by other agencies.
How do you think these two programs should move into the future? Should NASA and SpaceX share the same space, or should each know its own place? Let us know in the comments!