The New Face of Commercial Space: NASA and SpaceX's Big Falcon Rocket

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It seems like SpaceX’s popularity has been on a trajectory that, if it were a rocket, would be halfway to Pluto by now. When people discuss SpaceX, the term “New Space” is thrown around a lot. The underlying idea is that “Old Space,” made up of major defense contractors, has had its time to shine, and that the future of space exploration belongs to the new companies, those who emerged out of the tech boom in the 1990s and early 2000s. Elon Musk (SpaceX) helped found PayPal. Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) founded Amazon. Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic/Orbit) founded…a lot of things. With the emergence of New Space, some expect these companies will take over commercial space. And with that, they will take over government contracts.

In the most recent episode of Ad Astra, we responded to a question from one our listeners. The question? “Why won’t the government fund SpaceX’s new BFR (Big Falcon Rocket)?” I thought on this question for a while, and came to an answer: the government won’t fund the BFR, but it sure will help develop the tools needed to build it. This topic gets to the core of how we view commercial space, and is integral to the continued growth of the sector and success of both New and Old Space. New technology needs to find a place within our existing system. And the way the government funds the development of new technology takes this into consideration.


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Although the BFR, as Elon Musk describes it in his IAC talk from September, would be an amazing feat of engineering ability, its significance to the federal government is hampered by one key fact: it hasn’t been built or flown yet. The government isn’t a venture capital firm, nor should it be. The government’s stakeholders, the taxpayers, probably wouldn’t be happy if billions and billions of dollars were spent on a concept that either didn’t work, didn’t work as intended, or blew up on the launch pad. There’s a reason why the US government doesn’t build its own rockets to launch things. It’s cheaper and easier to use commercial space services. But what the government can do is offer contracts to companies to develop key pieces of technology that may, in turn, help those companies develop their pet projects.

 

 

NASA SLS

And this is where the similarities between Old and New Space abound. Old Space, as described above, is made up of defense contractors. Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, just to name a few. These companies utilized defense contracts to develop their commercial space capabilities. We’re seeing the exact same thing unfold with New Space. SpaceX has been trying fervently to prove to the Air Force that their rockets are reliable. Blue Origin is developing the BE-4 rocket motor with the help of defense contracts. The list goes on, and continues to grow. New Space can take the lessons learned from these contracts and develop new technologies based on it. It’s a tried and true method that, although it doesn’t satisfy the immediate lust for interplanetary exploration, it will produce results that could very well change the way we do space. So, no, the US government will not fund the BFR…but it sure will have opportunities for SpaceX to develop many of the technologies that will send us further out to the stars.

For the sake of brevity, topics that weren’t mentioned: Boeing KC-135 / 737 analogy, Commercial Cargo (COTS) and Crew programs under NASA, SpaceX Raptor engine example, Virgin Orbit LauncherOne contract with DoD, and I’m sure many others.