“We got to the Moon without private contractors, if I’m not mistaken,” US rep. Jamaal Bowman said yesterday, leading me to collapse in a frothing heap. NASA administrator Bill Nelson had a calmer response: “In the Apollo program, Mr. Congressman, we got to the Moon with American corporations.”
A dozen major US companies worked closely with the US space agency to build the vehicles that took the first humans to the lunar surface. NASA scientists and engineers planned the mission and the technology needed to accomplish it, then worked with the most advanced tech firms of the day to produce rockets, capsules, landers, suits, and rovers. There’s no doubt Apollo was a big government program, but the private sector was essential.
Why does this history matter? In the last decade, the US space program has made major leaps by handing more work directly to private firms. Rather than designing a new space vehicle to carry cargo or astronauts to the International Space Station and hiring someone to build it, NASA effectively told its needs to the marketplace, and accepted proposals from companies that would not only design the spacecraft, but operate them as a service. This choice launched SpaceX and a new era of private sector space in the US.
The logic of this kind of partnership rests on several factors: These are tasks that have been done before, paving the way for new organizations to take them on more easily. Private firms are now willing to invest their own capital alongside the government, saving public money. They can take more risk, and use more advanced program management techniques than government-run programs.
And they seem to result in more accountability for taxpayers when things go wrong: NASA shoulders the extra cost for Boeing’s long-delayed and over-budget SLS rocket, a traditional program; the same company is paying hundreds of millions of dollars to re-test its Starliner spacecraft, bought through a public-private partnership.
As the US plans its return to the Moon, a debate is emerging about the role of private firms. NASA has hired them to do everything from sending robots on the lunar surface to developing the landers that will carry humans there. In the House, lawmakers like science committee chair Eddie Bernice Johnson are skeptical that companies can take on these tasks. This isn’t a crazy worry: Landing on another astronomical body is a greater challenge than flying to low-earth orbit, and there are far fewer obvious non-government customers in the lunar transit market.
For now, NASA has hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build lunar landers. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is challenging the government’s choice, delaying the whole program until at least August. The corporate tussle, and the two companies’ decision to market themselves as personal projects of their controversial billionaire founders, have led opponents to portray NASA’s partnerships as corporate handouts. But make no mistake: The alternative is still money for corporations—likely much more, and with fewer strings attached.
A version of this story was originally published in Quartz’s Space Business newsletter.