The space race began by pitting the world’s two superpowers in competition against each other, with both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. making significant technological developments over the course of several years. Although NASA has maintained its status as an important governmental entity for decades, support for the agency has decreased slightly amidst growing economic and budgetary concerns. Now, private companies are the main competitors in the ongoing space race.
Today, NASA awarded contracts to both Boeing and SpaceX, allowing the companies to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Boeing was awarded $4.2 billion, and SpaceX was awarded $2.6 billion. The decision to award contracts to private companies has been in the works since NASA ended its own shuttle program in 2011.
These contracts — which had been expected to be awarded soon — are a significant step forward in the federal government’s plans to utilize private companies for space exploration. NASA’s Commercial Crew program was established with the goal of carrying out successful flights by 2017. Their decision to award contracts to Boeing and SpaceX — two of the foremost companies in the industry — also ensures that competition and safety will be primary concerns. The state-funded NASA is still in control, but private companies have more room to innovate and be rewarded for such innovation.
The business has already been booming, with companies like Sierra Nevada Corp. and Lockheed Martin also campaigning for NASA contracts. Private companies keep the burden off taxpayers while creating jobs and stimulating competition. Space exploration is undoubtedly important for humanity — but has become less of an essential function of government than it was during the Cold War.
The contracts also represent the U.S.’s continuation of its strained relationship with Russia. Since ending the space shuttle program in 2011, American astronauts have been relying on a Russian spacecraft for transportation, a cost which is estimated at $70 million per seat. Allowing American companies to transport astronauts to the space station will stimulate the growth of the private space industry while ending the U.S.’s dependence on Russian spacecrafts. Of course, this shouldn't be viewed as a reactionary measure against Russia, but it's still important that the U.S. is distancing itself from the country in yet another manner. Although the contract announcement was an expected response to NASA’s retired shuttle program, it’s still exciting news for all involved. It proves that private companies are on par with government agencies, and hints at the shape of space exploration to come.