Why would NASA outsource missions to SpaceX?

When it comes new PR disasters, NASA isn't taking any risks.

PETER WARD: One of the greatest criticisms leveled at NASA is that they don't take enough risk, and that's for good reason. You've seen that they have had tragedies in their past. They had the Challenger disaster. They've had two tragedies in the shuttle program alone. And we saw whole crews die in those. And that makes you nervous. That's bad for PR. That's bad for a government. That's bad for a president. If you see these national heroes who are supposed to be going into space to further the species and get glory for the country and they don't come back, that aside from being a terrible, terrible thing is also extremely bad PR and it did affect NASA a lot.

And what we've seen now is NASA has shifted some of that risk. NASA's role has changed. Back then they would be a contractor and they would tell companies to build them a specific part of a rocket. But they would do the whole mission themselves. Now we see NASA is more of a client so it's shifted the responsibility and the risk to SpaceX. SpaceX is basically selling NASA a ride to the international space station. So if something were to go wrong and thankfully as the years go on it's less likely that something will go wrong, NASA doesn't have as much of that risk. It doesn't have as much responsibility I guess. It will come under fire for hiring SpaceX but ultimately anything bad that would happen would be on SpaceX's shoulders.

So you've seen NASA has switched, has taken the risk and put it onto the private companies. And the private companies are much better equipped to deal with that risk. They don't have to elect their CEO every four years, for example. They don't have to answer to a whole country and they can go ahead and do things that other people couldn't. And you've seen it in America in the past actually. You saw the railroad expansion. America used private companies to do that. It wasn't the government. They gave them huge amounts of land and said go and build us a railroad system and there are actually a lot of similarities between those two scenarios. A lot of people see Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin as the railroad companies who are being tasked with connecting us with another frontier essentially.

  • Tragedies at NASA, such as Challenger and Columbia disasters, have impeded the organization from taking risks, critics say. Indeed, in terms of PR, these tragedies were particularly baleful.
  • Although NASA was once a contractor, its staff spearheading missions, today they are more a client. SpaceX is basically selling NASA a ride to the ISS.
  • Essentially, NASA has put the risk on private companies — if anything bad happens, it's on SpaceX, for example. This switch may better further space colonization goals, though, because the private sector has more flexibility, in terms of how business is conducted. Also, NASA, as a national entity, avoids the pall of a possible disaster.
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The distances between the stars are so vast that they can make your brain melt. Take for example the Voyager 1 probe, which has been traveling at 35,000 miles per hour for more than 40 years and was the first human object to cross into interstellar space. That sounds wonderful except, at its current speed, it will still take another 40,000 years to cross the typical distance between stars.

Worse still, if you are thinking about interstellar travel, nature provides a hard limit on acceleration and speed. As Einstein showed, it's impossible to accelerate any massive object beyond the speed of light. Since the galaxy is more than 100,000 light-years across, if you are traveling at less than light speed, then most interstellar distances would take more than a human lifetime to cross. If the known laws of physics hold, then it seems a galaxy-spanning human civilization is impossible.

Unless of course you can build a warp drive.

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