Enlarge / The view of a landed Falcon 9 first stage booster in June, 2017, in Florida. (credit: SpaceX)
During the last decade, NASA has invested billions of dollars into programs with private companies to carry cargo and, eventually, astronauts to the International Space Station.
These commercial services were powered by new kinds of contracts for the agency, because they offered a “fixed price” for services and required companies to put in their own funding to develop new spacecraft and rockets.
But the space agency has established a Maginot line of sorts around the planet when it comes to deep space exploration.
For example, less than a year ago NASA’s then administrator, Charles Bolden, said he’s “not a big fan” of commercial companies building large, heavy lift rockets that will enable private companies to venture beyond low Earth orbit.
For Bolden, the lines were clear: we’ll support you near Earth, but leave deep space to the professionals. “We believe our responsibility to the nation is to take care of things that normal people cannot do, or don’t want to do, like large launch vehicles,” Bolden said of NASA.
Nevertheless, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and other companies have pressed forward with their plans to develop large rockets capable of deep space exploration.
And they’re making progress.
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy booster, which has 90 percent the lift capability to low Earth orbit as the initial version of NASA’s Space Launch System, is likely to fly in 2017—up two year years before NASA’s own big rocket.
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