SpaceX vs. NASA: Who Does Space Better?

NASA's early days were bumpier than you think.
Brad Bergan
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Two SpaceX Starships have exploded across our screens in recent months, leading to mixed opinions about the company's star prototype, and its ability to eventually take humans to Mars.

With the FAA investigating the latest exploded Starship — the second in a row for the company — nostalgia yearns for the days when space missions fell solely within the domain of public agencies, instead of private aerospace companies.

However, NASA's origins were just as bumpy — as several prototype rocket vehicles in the 1960s and beyond exploded before they could complete their mission objectives — just like SpaceX's Starship, and earlier prototypes.

The question, then, is raised: Who does space better, NASA, or SpaceX?

SpaceX's Starship SN9 explosion undergoing FAA investigation

The FAA announced it would oversee the investigation into a crash landing of SpaceX's crashed prototype rocket Starship SN9 on Tuesday, according to an initial report from CNN. This came on the heels of a previous investigation of the aerospace company's last Starship, SN8 — which also exploded on landing.

The SN9 Starship was an early prototype for SpaceX, which launched in a high-altitude flight test on Tuesday. Notably, the spacecraft prototype traveled roughly 6 miles (10 km) into the air, hovered momentarily, then successfully performed the "belly-flop" maneuver before crashing and exploding into the Earth.

"The FAA's top priority in regulating commercial space transportation is ensuring that operations are safe, even if there is an anomaly," said a spokesperson from the U.S. agency, speaking euphemistically about the crash landing.

"The FAA will oversee the investigation of today's landing mishap involving the SpaceX Starship SN9 prototype in Boca Chica, Texas," continued the statement, CNN reports. "Although this was an uncrewed test flight, the investigation will identify the root cause of today's mishap and possible opportunities to further enhance safety as the program develops."

Partial rocket test success is still progress

On the following Wednesday morning — after Starship SN9's explosive landing — SpaceX said the rocket's three Raptor engines had ignited and throttled off, but during descent, only one of the two Raptor engines successfully powered back up, which left Starship SN9 with insufficient thrust to slow its velocity for a soft landing.

"We demonstrated the ability to transition the engines to the landing propellant tanks, the subsonic reentry looked very good and stable," said SpaceX Engineer John Insprucker during the company's live stream of the launch. "We've just got to work on that landing a little bit."

While some might find Insprucker's reflective tone underwhelming, it probably comes with measured awareness of how explosive prototype testing historically is.

NASA's early days were just as explosive

The early months of NASA's Mercury program — which was the first U.S. rocket program to lift humans into orbit — were wildly explosive. The first attempt to launch a Mercury capsule went forward on July 29, 1960 — atop an Atlas rocket, the Mercury-Atlas 1 vehicle experienced structural collapse 58 seconds after liftoff, at roughly 30,000 ft (9.1 km).

The weather was too dismal and rainy to witness an explosion, but instrument data suggested violent motions after telemetry ceased, before debris crashed into the sea.

Months later, on September 26, 1960, the Atlas Able 5-A slated to send a lunar probe to space also experienced a critical mission failure — which forced a "wholesale review of the Atlas as a launch vehicle."

NASA's Mercury-Atlas series

Regarding the search for explanations for repeated launch failures, an engineer told a reporter: "We have answered all of the questions we have asked ourselves — but have we asked the right questions? We can't be sure. That is one of the reasons we are repeating the test," according to the NASA archive.

It wasn't until the Mercury-Atlas 2 launched on February 21, 1961, that the first test launch succeeded in all of its objectives. But there were many, many other failed test launches to follow — best dramatized in a clip from the film "The Right Stuff."

SpaceX and the road to reusable rockets

SpaceX's beginnings were much smaller than its present-day Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Starship launches. One pandemic and two administrations ago in 2008, Falcon 1 became the first-ever liquid-fueled and privately-developed launch vehicle to make it to space — powered by one Merlin engine in the first stage rocket, and a Kestrel engine in the second stage.

Of course, this came after a few botched early attempts, but SpaceX's contribution to the idea of space flight isn't delivering commercial payloads into space, or even lifting humans into low-Earth orbit. Key to SpaceX's appeal is the advent of reusable rockets.

Starship's Raptor engines are better for reusability

Instead of using disposable first-stage boosters, SpaceX's ability to land Falcon 9 boosters could help it recoup the cost of building and refurbishing  a single booster after three flights.

"I don't want to be cavalier, but there isn't an obvious limit" to the number of flights each Falcon 9 can make," said Musk in a tweet last August. "Cleaning all 9 Merlin [Falcon 9 engine] turbines is difficult. Raptor [the engine now used for Starship] is way easier in this regard, despite being a far more complex engine."

And — once it makes a successful landing — Starship will become the first space vehicle to offer full reusability.

NASA versus SpaceX: who does space better?

NASA and SpaceX are committed to working together in space ventures — with the former awarding the latter three contracts for Starship missions to the moon last year — to go forward by 2024. When it comes to profitability, SpaceX is likely the long-term winner, since as a private company funded by government grants and payments from payload companies — it only has to keep up business as usual to continue launching rockets.

However, until Elon Musk's SpaceX returns humans to the moon and puts the first people on Mars — NASA will likely hold out in people's minds as the pre-eminent leader of space exploration, not only because it has launched missions with more in mind than money, but because — with spacecraft like the Voyagers 1 and 2 still active in interstellar space and many more since successfully exploring the inner and outer planets of our solar system — SpaceX simply hasn't gone as far.

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