Americans Love NASA, But Private Firms Do the Real Work in Space

People see a continuing role for the space agency, but mostly in national defense.


Despite the successes of private space companies, many Americans cling to a notion of NASA as representing the country beyond the atmosphere. In fact, though, NASA relies on capabilities developed and owned by others. The Space Launch System [SLS] is supposed to restore the agency's role, but it's antiquated and clunky when compared to private competitors. Public opinion has yet to catch up with an innovation boom that has moved beyond misty memories of NASA in its moon-landing heyday.

Fond Memories of a Space Pioneer

"Most Americans continue to believe that the U.S. space agency NASA has a critical role to play, even as private space companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are increasingly involved in space," Pew Research reported earlier this month. "Overall, 65% of U.S. adults say it is essential that NASA continue to be involved in space exploration, the survey finds. A smaller share (32%) believe that private companies will ensure enough progress is made in space exploration, even without NASA's involvement."

The Biden administration is happy to play to such sentiments with its National Cislunar Science & Technology Strategy which heavily emphasizes "the NASA Artemis program, with its near-term mission to return humans to the Moon." But the publication of that strategy last November was no accident, coinciding as it did with the successful test of the long-delayed Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule. Without the SLS, plans for NASA's return to the moon are pipe dreams, since it has largely relied on others for reaching space since the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle program.

"Without SpaceX, the only U.S. company currently capable of carrying cargo to the ISS would currently be Northrop Grumman, and NASA would still be reliant on the Russian Soyuz for crew transportation," The Planetary Society noted in 2020.

But the SLS is less of a great leap forward than an impressive exercise in digging through the spare parts bin and seeing what you can cobble together.

Repackaged Space Shuttle Technology

"To reduce cost and development time, NASA is upgrading proven hardware from the space shuttle and other exploration programs while making use of cutting-edge tooling and manufacturing technology," NASA cheerfully boasts. What that means, according to, is that "components that previously flew on 83 out of the 135 space shuttle missions have been assembled into new vehicles: the Space Launch System [SLS] and its Orion spacecraft."

Despite a lot of off-the-shelf parts, the SLS arrived years late and billions of dollars over-budget. It didn't even have a defined mission until the return to the moon was first announced during the Trump administration.

"Ultimately, jobs—and not actual progress in space—seem to be the driving force of the program," space analyst and consultant Rand Simberg (who has written for Reason) charged in 2011. "Even if it never actually flies, SLS may still meet its primary mission requirement: delivering federal funding to the states and districts of those in Congress with a particular interest in NASA's budget."

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver is also no fan of the SLS.

"It's all about flight rate," she told Ars Technica last year. "It will become inevitably embarrassing if [SpaceX's] Starship is launching dozens of times a year like Falcon 9 is, and SLS once every two years." She doesn't have high hopes that NASA's new baby is up to the challenge because "they took finicky, expensive programs that couldn't fly very often, stacked them together differently, and said now, all of a sudden, it's going to be cheap and easy. The shuttle was supposed to fly 40 or 50 times a year. And at its max it never got close. Typically, it was four or five."

That's not to say that Garver is pessimistic about space exploration. On the contrary, she's excited about recent developments and what the future holds.

"I'm really positive about the future of space. The last decade has exceeded my expectations largely because of SpaceX. I just want to be clear about that. I couldn't have imagined, as I said in the book [Escaping Gravity, published in 2022], that we would have something like a Starship as far along in the testing as it is today."

Unlike the expendable SLS, which has a super-heavy-lift capacity of more than 200,000 pounds to low-earth orbit, the reusable Starship, with comparable (or greater) payload has yet to enjoy a successful test. The same could be said of Blue Origin's reusable New Glenn. But Space X's Falcon Heavy has had multiple missions and is based on the smaller, crew-rated Falcon 9 with over 200 missions to orbit. Northrop Grumman's Antares series has also had multiple successful launches.

Old Tech and High Prices

Payload isn't everything; the price of getting into space is also important, and private alternatives are much more cost-effective than what NASA is expected to deliver with its new-ish space capabilities.

"At an estimated cost of over $2 billion per launch for the SLS once development is complete, the use of a commercial launch vehicle would provide over $1.5 billion in cost savings," the Office of Management and Budget observed about requirements that the SLS be used for the upcoming Europa mission.

"Congress will force the agency to pay $2 billion per launch on the SLS while New Space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin — companies that NASA helped foster — offer the same capabilities for a tenth of the cost or less," Eli Dourado of the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University warned. "It's an enormous waste of taxpayer funds."

Private Firms Take the Lead

But if NASA isn't competitive with private firms, entrepreneurs aren't waiting for permission to go out on their own. Not only is cargo reaching orbit on privately developed and operated launch systems, but Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic have also embarked on space tourism.

"This is the new look of human space exploration as government's long-held monopoly on space travel continues to erode, redefining not only who owns the vehicles that carry people to space, but also the very nature of what an astronaut is and who gets to be one," The Washington Post observed in 2021.

So, American opinion hasn't yet caught up with the reality in space. But if you dig deeper, people's ideas for NASA's priorities strongly emphasize the government's traditional role in national defense.

"When asked what NASA's priorities should be, Americans rank monitoring asteroids that could hit the Earth and monitoring the Earth's climate system at the top of the list," reports Pew. Sending astronauts back to the moon was named a top priority by just 12 percent.

"The only area where Americans specifically want the federal government to remain in control is when it comes to the launching of military satellites," found a similar YouGov poll in 2021.

Americans obviously have fond memories about a past when NASA sent astronauts to the moon. But their vision for the agency's future is focused on a protective role in space while private enterprise innovates and handles the (literal) heavy lifting.