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On July 21, 2011, Space Shuttle Atlantis landed back on earth after a mission to the International Space Station (ISS), bringing the venerable NASA program to an end after 30 years. But years prior, the space agency set into motion a pivotal project in pursuit of the next phase of space travel: the development of a commercialized space industry. And as it turned out, one of the major players would be SpaceX.

The collaboration between private company SpaceX and taxpayer-funded NASA has proven to be a highly successful enterprise resulting in the first crewed mission to the ISS to be launched from American soil since 2011 (followed by several more) and a joint venture to return humans to the moon.

And while their relationship is best viewed as a mutually beneficial partnership, in the context of this new privatized era of space travel and exploration, NASA is technically a paying customer (albeit an extremely powerful and indispensable one). Read on to learn more about how SpaceX works with NASA and why it could be a match made in heaven.

Does SpaceX Work with NASA?

The conclusion of the space shuttle program represented more than the end of a storied chapter in the annals of global space travel. It also marked the beginning of nearly a decade of U.S. astronauts hitching rides aboard Russian Soyuz rockets to reach the ISS. 

Escalating costs (from $22 million per single round-trip journey in 2008 to $85 million per astronaut in 2019) along with mounting concerns about mission safety spurred NASA to engage with several private space companies about utilizing U.S.-based companies and platforms for future crewed space missions.

To this end, NASA initiated its Commercial Crew program and opened up competition among private firms to develop spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts and delivering payloads to orbital space. With billions of dollars in potential contracts at stake, two companies emerged as the leaders: aerospace stalwart Boeing and the upstart SpaceX.

NASA’s Crewed Missions to Space

NASA’s Commercial Crew program represents a cosmic shift in operating philosophy for the storied agency. Instead of serving as a pseudo-governmental overseer of all aspects of a national space program, NASA has essentially become a paying customer, albeit one with enormous influence over the final product.

With respect to its partnership with SpaceX, NASA has reportedly invested $3.1 billion into the company to further the development of its Crew Dragon spacecraft (SpaceX’s flagship vehicle for transporting astronauts) and to refine its Falcon 9 rocket system for carrying out crewed missions. (Competitor Boeing has received $4.8 billion from the Commercial Crew program.)

The results of NASA’s investment of resources into SpaceX have been nothing short of historic:

  • Less than one year after the space shuttle program concluded SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon space vehicle embarked on a cargo mission and successfully docked with the ISS (the first-ever privately produced space vehicle to do so)
  • Cargo Dragon has made over 20 trips to the ISS to deliver supplies
  • SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is the first-ever privately developed spacecraft to carry passengers to space and the first crewed space flight launched from U.S. soil since the space shuttle program came to an end in 2011
  • With NASA’s blessing, SpaceX is accepting bookings for space flights on its Crew Dragon spacecraft from private parties (space tourists)
  • The Falcon 9 rocket booster which was developed under the guidance of NASA, has successfully landed back on earth after space missions over 80 times thus far

By incentivizing the private development of space technologies and promoting competition among firms to produce cost-effective solutions, NASA is seemingly accomplishing its goals of utilizing U.S.-produced vehicles for space missions while controlling the costs of sending astronauts and payloads into space. For NASA and SpaceX this has developed into a win-win situation.

Since SpaceX teamed up with NASA with the purpose of launching crewed space flights, there have been multiple missions flown to the ISS with astronauts on board, including:

  • Demo-2 – the first-ever commercial space flight carrying astronauts to the ISS
  • Crew-1 – this mission was the first commercial space flight to be officially certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and the first SpaceX Crew Dragon mission with a female astronaut on board
  • Crew-2 – the third Crew Dragon mission was piloted by NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, whose husband, fellow NASA astronaut Robert Behnken, flew on the Demo-2 mission
  • Crew-3 – this is the fourth crewed SpaceX mission overall and third operational NASA mission to the ISS

A historic, all-civilian (i.e., nonprofessional astronauts) mission named Inspiration-4 took passengers into orbit and although it was privately funded and booked with SpaceX, NASA nevertheless provided administrative and technical support for which services the agency was reimbursed.

NASA’s Lunar Lander Project

The partnership between SpaceX and NASA extends far beyond orbital space as Elon Musk’s company was recently awarded a $2.89 billion contract to develop a lunar lander for the Artemis program – NASA’s ambitious plan to return humans (and reportedly the first female astronaut) to the surface of the moon.

SpaceX will be tasked with transporting two astronauts from NASA’s Orion spacecraft orbiting the moon to the lunar surface via SpaceX’s human landing system (HLS). After exploring the moon’s surface for an expected period of one week, SpaceX will return the two NASA astronauts back to Orion for the return journey back to earth.

Conclusion

As the old saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention” and in the case of SpaceX and NASA, both parties had serious needs in the early going that seemingly only the other could address. The former was in dire need of revenue and the latter similarly desperate for launch assets that it could rely on for future missions.

Whether by fate or happenstance, SpaceX and NASA have joined forces, and the rest, as they say, is history.