In the new Space Age, you can buy a ticket to orbit — no need to have been a fighter pilot in the military or to compete against thousands of other overachievers for a coveted spot in NASA’s astronaut corps.
In fact, for this mission, the first composed entirely of private citizens, NASA is little more than a bystander. It does not own or operate the rocket that will blast the astronauts into space or the capsule they will live in for the few days they are scheduled to circle Earth every 90 minutes. NASA has no say in selecting the astronauts, and it will not train or outfit them — that will all be done by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
The money to pay for the flight also will not come from NASA — or any other government account. The cost of the project is being borne by a billionaire, Jared Isaacman, who has set it up as a fundraiser for St. Jude’s Research Hospital and a promotional device for his business, Shift4Shop, which helps businesses set up websites and process payments.
This is the new look of human space exploration as government’s long-held monopoly on space travel continues to erode, redefining not only who owns the vehicles that carry people to space, but also the very nature of what an astronaut is and who gets to be one.
And it comes as NASA confronts some of the largest changes it has faced since it was founded in 1958 when the United States’ world standing was challenged by the Soviet Union’s surprise launch of the first Sputnik into orbit. Now it is NASA’s unrivaled primacy in human spaceflight that is under challenge.
Thanks to NASA’s investments and guidance, the private space sector has grown tremendously — no entity more than SpaceX, which according to CNBC is now worth $74 billion. The commercial space industry is taking on ever more roles and responsibilities — flying not just cargo and supplies to the International Space Station, but even NASA’s astronauts there. The private sector will launch some of the major components of the space station NASA wants to build in orbit around the moon, and private companies are developing the spacecraft that will fly astronauts to and from the lunar surface.
Space enthusiasts, including NASA, see enormous benefit in the shift — a new era of space exploration that will usher in a more capable and efficient space industry. But the changing dynamic also has left NASA, which for decades has set the pace for the American space project, with an uncertain role, a development NASA’s Safety Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel warns could have consequences for years to come.
The growth of companies like SpaceX has "tremendous upside potential — and are accompanied by equally tremendous challenges for managing the risk of human space exploration,” it said in its annual report, released last month. “NASA leadership in human space exploration is still preeminent, but the agency’s role is evolving with critical implications for how risk and safety will be managed.”
So far, NASA has done well “as it shifts from principally executing its programs and missions to commercially acquiring significant key elements and services,” it said. But as the agency continues to evolve, “NASA must make some strategically critical decisions, based on deliberate and thorough consideration, that are necessary because of their momentous consequences for the future of human space exploration and, in particular, for the management of the attendant risks.”
In an interview, Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, said the agency is well aware of how its identity and role are changing, and he likened the agency’s role to how the U.S. government fostered the commercial aviation industry in the early 20th century.
NASA’s predecessor, NACA, or the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, “did research, technology development to initially support defense … but also later on supporting a burgeoning commercial aircraft industry and aviation industry,” he said. “So that may be how we evolve, moving forward on the space side. We’re going to do the research and the technology development and be the enablers for continuing to support the commercial space sector.”
NASA has not ceded all ground. It still leads major exploration and science programs that no company could match. Last week, for example, it landed a rover the size of a car on Mars, hitting a precise landing target after traveling nearly 300 million miles. Later this year, it is scheduled to launch the James Webb telescope, which is designed to look back in time to the origins of the universe. And it also recently snagged a sample of rocks and soil from an asteroid 200 million miles from Earth to return them to Earth for study.
“NASA works," Rob Manning, the chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said after the Perseverance landed safely on Mars. “When we put our arms together and our hands together and our brains together, we can succeed. This is what NASA does.”
Those big, daring, push-the-envelope missions is where NASA’s future lies, agency and industry officials agree. Not in looking for financial gain, but blazing the trail and opening new frontiers, and then allowing private industry to take over in the way homesteaders expanded into the West.
Within NASA, there is still some resistance to that paradigm shift. “NASA feels like that’s our domain,” said Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight. “And my response is, the solar system is a big place. We at NASA should always be doing the next thing, the thing where the profit motive is not as evident and where the barriers to entry are still too high for the private sector to really make a compelling business case.”
Jan Worner, the outgoing general director of the European Space Agency, agrees. “I believe space agencies have to change,” he said in an interview. “If you are fixed permanently to the same thing that you did in the past, you will lose.”
But NASA officials are concerned that much of the future workforce is going to be attracted to a growing number of commercial companies doing amazing things. There is Planet, for example, which is putting up constellations of small satellites that take an image of Earth every day. Or Relativity Space, which is 3-D printing entire rockets. Or Axiom Space, which is building a commercial space station. Or Astrobotic, which intends to land a spacecraft on the moon later this year.
The question NASA faces, then, is an urgent one: “How do you maintain that NASA technical expertise?” Jurczyk said.
The agency does not know.
“It may mean people are hiring more midcareer from industry or having people come to NASA, then go to industry, and come back. Or a different model where maybe you’re not coming to NASA and staying for your 35-, 40-year career,” he said. “We’re still thinking through that.”
The workforce predicament was not on NASA’s mind when it embarked on this road in 2006. That is when it awarded relatively small contracts to see whether the private sector could develop spacecraft capable of taking cargo to the International Space Station. At the time, SpaceX, which won an award, was largely unknown and on the verge of bankruptcy, with just one successful flight to orbit for its Falcon 1 rocket after three failures.
Outside of what Musk once called “the weird rebels within NASA,” few thought the program would work. It was not taken seriously by the mainstream aerospace industry or even by NASA’s leadership.
“Let’s just give these annoying commercial people enough money so that they can fail, and we can say, ‘That was dumb. We don’t have to do that again,'” Musk once told The Washington Post.
But it did work. And now NASA is relying on the private sector not only to deliver supplies and science experiments to the surface of the moon, but also its most precious cargo — its astronauts — there. Turning over human spaceflight to the private sector was a line many thought NASA would never cross. But last year, SpaceX successfully flew two crewed missions to the space station, and Boeing, the other company with the human spaceflight contract, is hoping to fly its first later this year.
NASA has been eager to build on that success and hire private-sector companies to build and operate the spacecraft that would take astronauts to and from the surface of the moon.
And while NASA’s flagship rocket, the Space Launch System, would be used to fly astronauts to the moon and be the most powerful ever built, it has suffered all sorts of cost overruns and technical delays. A test of its engines that was supposed to last as long as eight minutes was cut short after just one because of a technical problem. And the redo of the test was recently postponed by NASA, which said it was looking into a problem with one of the valves.
Recently, the NASA inspector general said the total cost of the rocket would reach $27 billion through 2025. That enormous cost has outraged critics of the space program, who have derided the effort as little more than a jobs program for select congressional districts and dubbed it the “Senate Launch System.”
Recently, the Bloomberg editorial board called for the Biden administration to “scrap the Space Launch System,” asking, “Why is the U.S. government building a space rocket?”
“No doubt, the era of government spacefaring had its glories,” the editorial read. “But space is now a $424 billion business, with U.S. companies at its forefront. The new administration should embrace this revolution — and bring the power of private enterprise to bear in crossing the next cosmic frontier.”
Some high-level NASA officials, including former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, have indicated that if the commercial sector can develop lower-cost alternatives, the space agency would have no choice but to consider those instead. NASA has already shifted one major mission from SLS — recently it announced that a commercial rocket, and not SLS, as Congress had mandated for years, would launch the Europa Clipper spacecraft that would study Jupiter’s moon.
That alone would save NASA “over $1.5 billion compared to using an SLS rocket,” according to NASA’s fiscal year 2021 budget request.
NASA has always relied on contractors to build its hardware — from the Apollo lunar module built by Grumman to the space shuttle, built largely by North American Rockwell. But NASA defined the precise requirements, took ownership of the spacecraft and operated them. That is not the case with many of its programs today. It works alongside the companies to validate their rockets and spacecraft and ensure they meet the agency’s safety standards. But the hardware and the launch procedures remain in private hands.
The private astronaut mission, dubbed Inspiration4, marks the next iteration in this transition. Isaacman, the billionaire founder and chief executive of Shift4Shop, a payments technology company, paid an undisclosed sum for the SpaceX flight. Isaacman, an accomplished pilot, will occupy one of the four seats. Another will go to Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The third is to be raffled off as part of a fundraising effort for the hospital. And the fourth seat will go to the winner of a competition among entrepreneurs who use Shift4Shop’s platform. Isaacman has donated $100 million to St. Jude and hopes the fundraising effort will match that.
“We will, of course, coordinate this with NASA,” Musk said on a call with reporters earlier this month to discuss the mission. “NASA has been briefed on this and is supportive.”
But it will be SpaceX and the crew that will determine the flight parameters and training requirements, not NASA. “Wherever you want to go, we’ll take you there,” Musk said to Isaacman on the call.
That mission will be followed by a second flight made up entirely of civilians — three wealthy business executives, who are each paying $55 million, in addition to the commander, Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who now serves as a vice president at Axiom. Instead of spending a few days inside SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which has about as much interior room as a large SUV, they will fly to the International Space Station. They will spend eight days there before flying back.
Ultimately, Axiom’s goal is even bigger — to build a space station of its own. The ISS is getting old and will need to come down at some point. NASA has said that it would eventually get out of the space station business — and outsource that to the private sector as well. Axiom is one of the leading candidates to build the successor.
If Axiom is successful, it could then proceed to its ultimate goal: charter missions of private citizens, flying on private rockets to a private space station with little to no involvement from NASA.
Those flights would join the suborbital tourism flights to the edge of space that Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin hope to provide, as early as this year. That would mark the culmination of the long-held dream of opening space to the masses, and build on the first flight of private citizens to space — the flight of SpaceShipOne, a piloted space plane, in 2004.
After that flight, the space plane’s designer, Burt Rutan, held up a sign that he hoped would portend a new space age, one where human spaceflight was not dependent on NASA.
“SpaceShipOne," it read. “Government Zero.”