It’s SpaceX vs. Boeing, and so far, the private sector is outpacing the government-backed aerospace behemoth.
It is the best of times for SpaceX, it is the worst of times for Boeing. It is the age of free-market wisdom, it is the age of government-backed aerospace-industrial-complex foolishness. It is the spring of hope for a system that sent billionaire high-school dropout Jared Isaacman into orbit, it is the winter of despair for a more traditional aerospace program that remains mired on the ground.
SpaceX, the rocket company of billionaire Elon Musk, sent ordinary people (a physician assistant, a community-college professor, and a data engineer) as well as the billionaire founder of a payments-processor company into orbit for three days in a mission called Inspiration4. Their landing, splashing down off the coast of Florida, marked the first time Americans have succeeded at such a feat since Apollo 9 orbited the moon. And when the capsule touched the ocean, the private-sector astronauts heard mission control say, “Thanks for flying SpaceX.”
These ordinary astronauts rocketed into orbit to an altitude of 366 miles, above both the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope. And they rode there atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
The trip doesn’t just show that pretty much anyone can be an astronaut. It also reveals a fundamental difference in philosophy between the more free-market success story of SpaceX over the more traditional, and de facto government-run, aerospace firms such as Boeing.
The contrast came into sharp relief when, shortly after SpaceX’s triumphant mission, NASA officials announced that the stodgy Boeing CST-100 Starliner vehicle, which the U.S. space agency heavily backed, has been delayed for another year because of a problem with its valves.
NASA engineers still don’t know why parts of the spacecraft’s propulsion system are stuck shut, and they’ve had to delay an uncrewed test flight of the vehicle as a result. Meanwhile, actor Tom Cruise is plotting with SpaceX to shoot a movie on the International Space Station. He recently spoke on a call with the Inspiration4 astronauts.
In the race to put the first privately launched human into orbit, SpaceX beat Boeing and its Starliner, while spending $1 billion less, in 2020. This is a feat unmatched by all but three countries, and SpaceX reduced the cost of sending a human to orbit by about 95 percent compared with the government-run space shuttle. The government backed the wrong horse in this race. It was one small step for a man, one giant leap for capitalism.
These days, NASA isn’t capable of flying astronauts into orbit by itself anymore. It had to pay Russia up to $90 million in 2020 for a seat on their rockets. But rather than pay the Russians, NASA now plans to simply pay private U.S. companies for future rides into orbit, launching SpaceX and Boeing into fierce competition.
After working with the space agency for decades, Boeing was hired in 2010 to develop NASA’s astronaut-transportation system. It was a classic big-government aerospace contract. Then, in October 2019, Boeing botched an uncrewed attempt to reach the space station when its spacecraft failed to accurately fire its thrusters. All apparently due to a glitchy clock. (Yes, seriously.) And that’s when SpaceX took the lead.
Boeing was deeply involved in NASA’s Apollo program, which sent astronauts to the moon, and it’s currently getting paid almost $9.1 billion for developing the space agency’s Space Launch System. The government makes taxpayers pay mega-aerospace companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin $860 million just to exist as well. That close entanglement with the government may be lucrative, but it generates layers of bureaucracy that have hindered progress at those contractors as well.
SpaceX takes some subsidies and does government work of course, but the vast majority of its contracts are fixed-price, meaning the company has an incentive to spend less. Most Boeing contracts, by contrast, are “cost plus,” where a percentage of the total amount of money spent is guaranteed to the company as pure profit, which encourages budget overruns.
“The team is still going through its troubleshooting,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for the new Space Operations Mission Directorate, said during a call about NASA reorganization. “My gut is that it would probably be more likely to be next year, but we’re still working through that timeline.” NASA may be reconsidering its contractor relationships, upping the ante in the private-sector space race.
The threat to Boeing’s dominance represents a huge change from the state of affairs in October 2016, when Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg pledged to beat billionaire Elon Musk’s rocket company to Mars after the Starliner project reached major milestones. “I’m convinced the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding a Boeing rocket,” Muilenburg said at a conference, a prediction that seems far less likely to come true today.
SpaceX and Boeing are both capitalizing on huge advancements in reusable rocketry, a major development that has greatly reduced the price of getting to orbit. That has sparked a fierce rivalry between the companies, with SpaceX even accusing a Boeing joint venture of sabotage that led to the destruction of a rocket. The companies are also forcefully competing for U.S. military contracts, in addition to NASA ones.
Whichever company wins, maintaining private-sector dynamism and limiting government bureaucracy may be the key to future breakthroughs.
In any case, the tale of these two spaceflights shows that private-sector competition and innovation may soon take humanity to the stars. To reword Dickens again: It is a far, far better thing that we do, than we have ever done; it is a far, far better adventure that we go to than we have ever known.