Space Race 2.0 : How the Private Sector became USA’s beacon for space exploration

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

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America’s long-awaited arrival of the ‘Age of NewSpace’ (reference “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) was marked by SpaceX’s government-backed manned Crew Dragon mission to the ISS, using its Falcon 9 Block 5 Launch Vehicle. However, as the first (and only) country to ever put people on the moon nearly 50 years ago, how did sending humans to outer space revert to become ground-breaking for the USA? And how did SpaceX and not NASA become the face of this journey to the beyond?

A “would-have been” Space Odyssey : In the 1950s, USA’s Space ambitions received little public support, primarily because a war-torn nation was dead against military spending and Space was full of secrets, just like the military. However, popularity began to rise in the early 1960s in the wake of Friendship 7 (USA’s first manned spaceflight) and grew into the low majority with the Apollo 11 moon landing in July, 1969. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. This ‘famously misquoted’ Neil Armstrong quote could not have better summed what should have been the start of the “Golden Era of Space Exploration” !

After these historic achievements, NASA’s Langley Space Task Group (famously credited as being the brains behind the many, if not all, space flight successes), was commissioned to submit a study to the Nixon administration in order to assess how Apollo-era technology could take the USA forward in space exploration. The team turned in a 3 point “Integrated Program Plan” in Sep, 1969, which even today would seem futuristic to most.

The plan envisioned “reusable and nuclear-powered” space shuttles and tugs, nearly 35 years before SpaceX came into being. The rockets could take people and cargo to lower earth orbit and thereon to the Moon. The plan also had the first ever vision for “Boots on Mars”, estimating that it could be achieved at the earliest by 1982 and latest by 1986, with an estimated budget of around USD 70 billion (in today’s terms).

The “Successful Failure” : Apollo 13, which launched in 1970 as the 3rd instalment of the manned moon landing missions, was aborted due to the failure of a vital component 2 days into the mission. The crew instead of landing on the moon, looped around it and returned safely to Earth 6 days in. This experience with near-loss of life became a sudden reality check to many politicians to focus on social spending and poverty eradication, and it turned political capital against human space exploration.

At the heart of the above political decision was a sway in the public’s support for manned missions. The events leading up to Apollo 13’s return were widely televised, with one estimate suggesting nearly 40 million American’s viewed the live splashdown (30+ million viewed the 6.5 hour broadcast in its entirety), and many more watchful eyes tuned in from outside the USA. Pope Paul VI even led a 10,000 strong congregation to pray for the astronauts’ safe return, and the New York Times hailed that concerns for the astronaut’s safety had brought the world closer amid prevailing tensions of the Cold War.

Long story short, the Space Task Group’s report was tossed and 2 years later the Apollo program was discontinued. The only salient feature that was implemented was the introduction of the “Space Shuttle” Program, which led to the development of the world’s first partially reusable spacecraft.

The river runs dry : NASA’s piece of the US federal budget peaked at 4% in 1965 at the height of the “Space Race”. With its conclusion and post Apollo 13, the shift in political capital prompted the Nixon administration to put space exploration in competition with other federal programs, thereby steadily cutting into NASA’s budget. Clubbed with the Cold War tilting in favour of the USA, this led to the first efforts in co-operative space exploration, with the introduction of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The Space Shuttle became the centrepiece of various manned missions, but was limited to use only in lower earth orbit missions. Shooting for the moon became a thing of the past, the “War on Poverty” became the here and now of American politics.

NASA’s share of the pie eventually sloped down to around 1%, and has stayed there for the last 40 years. A key ingredient in the budget cut decision was the sleuth of financial improprieties revealed by audits disclosed under several 1985 Freedom of Information Act queries. According to an analysis and expose published by the New York Times in 1986, the audits revealed a pattern of roughly 15 years of mismanagement, wastage of billions of dollars and broken promises on costs, schedules and performance. It was also concluded by the print media outlet that NASA cut or delayed crucial safety spending and could have prevented the Challenger Space Shuttle accident in 1986, which killed 7 crew members on board.

With the G-7 nations signing onto the Missile Technology Control Regime in 1987 to prevent proliferation of ballistics and warheads, NASA began collaborating more openly on its projects with other nations, which helped it achieve some targets amid the string of budget cuts. In addition, the collapse of the Berlin Wall began rapid de-escalation of Cold War tensions in 1989. This saw the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev (and later Boris Yeltsin) come to power in Russia, promoting open economies and knowledge exchanges between the USA and USSR.

After the somewhat imperfect launch of the Hubble Space Telescope using the Space Shuttle, NASA’s Freedom program (which was envisaged as a USA only manned lower earth orbit space station) joined hands with the USSR’s Mir2, Europe’s Columbus and Japan’s Kibo programs in 1993, to form what we know today as the International Space Station (ISS). The Space-Shuttle program was to be USA’s servicer-of-choice for all manned and cargo missions to the ISS and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Adversity to opportunity : In 2004, following the Columbia mission accident in 2003, (which killed 7 crew members on board, including India’s mission specialist Kalpana Chawla), NASA was directed by the Bush administration to dismantle the Space Shuttle Program and start sourcing for alternatives. NASA was once again caught at the centre of Congress and media ire, when it was revealed that the problem which led to the failure of the spacecraft was in fact known and had not been corrected for several years.

With the economy only just starting to emerge into stability post the dot-com crash, Congress decided to shift the onus of Space Exploration (and with it, NASA’s cultural and organizational woes) away from the taxpayer. In effect, the space shuttle program was to continue till a set of viable private enterprise alternatives was found. This paved the way for the development of the first phase of the “Commercial Resupply Services” (CRS) program in 2006.

The initiative was started with the intention of bringing space exploration into the regime of fixed-price public private partnerships (PPP), with contracts/concessions similar in style and spirit to PPP infrastructure development projects. It also laid down the turf for routing private capital into space exploration, with funding support from the government. The funding was to be tied to a pre-agreed list of milestones, thus ensuring good governance which would counterbalance the possibility of organizational lapses at NASA. That said, the technical brilliance of NASA was not to be benched and the agency was tasked with evaluating proposals from private enterprises, awarding the contracts and serving as a technical advisor to the winners.

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK, acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2018 for USD 7.8 billion) were awarded the first of the CRS contracts in Dec, 2008 by NASA. The contracts totalled $3.5 billion for 20 missions covering all USA space cargo deliveries to the ISS, up to 2016. In 2010, SpaceX’s Dragon 1 spacecraft, in its maiden flight, became the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to be recovered successfully from orbit. Awarded a USD 1.6 billion contract for its efforts towards CRS, SpaceX was mandated to make 12 cargo deliveries using its Dragon 1 Spacecraft, with the first of the lot scheduled in May, 2012.

The road back to manned missions : The Obama administration took the CRS program a step further and introduced the Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev). The program, similar to CRS, was to be administered by NASA and welcomed private vendors to develop concepts for crew vehicles to carry American and international astronauts to and from the ISS.

After the launch and return of NASA’s Atlantis mission in 2011, the space shuttle program was finally retired per the 2004 ruling, now that the process of sourcing viable alternatives to the manned space shuttle program were under way. Manned missions to the ISS were operated in collaboration with the Russian Space Agency, flying astronauts in Soyuz capsule launches from Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome. The CCDev program, in tandem, would pave the road ahead for well governed and cost-conscious manned space exploration, in partnership with private enterprises.