Bill Nelson: Everybody Poo-Pooed SpaceX. Look at Them Now

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has commended SpaceX on its rise within the space industry after years of being "poo-pooed" by critics. "I think the private space industry is extremely beneficial," he told Newsweek. "Just look at what SpaceX has already accomplished."

In 2011, NASA ended its space shuttle program, with high costs, slow turnaround, and safety problems that led to the fatal Challenger and Columbia disasters among the factors for its demise. Since then NASA has resorted to purchasing rocket trips to and from the International Space Station (ISS) from Russia.

Keen to restore spaceflight from U.S. soil, in 2014 NASA awarded two huge contracts, worth a total of $6.8 billion, to Boeing and SpaceX, with the aim of getting crew to the ISS independently once again.

"When there was the beginning of the space cargo and crew [programs], the two serious bidders were SpaceX and Boeing, and everybody poo-pooed SpaceX and said, 'Oh, Boeing is a legacy company,'" Nelson said. "Well, guess who is about to make its sixth flight after its first test flight with astronauts, and guess who's still on the ground?"

Bill Nelson (L) and Elon Musk
Left: NASA administrator Bill Nelson seen during a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C., in April, 2021. Right: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk seen during a SpaceX/T-Mobile event in Boca Chica Beach, Texas, on August 25, 2022. Nelson has praised SpaceX in an interview with Newsweek. Graeme Jennings/Michael Gonzalez/Pool/Getty

SpaceX has since launched multiple NASA-funded crewed missions to the ISS, while Boeing—also a private company—has yet to carry humans in its Starliner capsule.

SpaceX, which was founded in March 2002 by Elon Musk, almost never happened. Between 2006 and 2008, its first three rocket launch attempts all failed, putting it on the edge of bankruptcy. The fourth launch succeeded, but only after Musk scraped together just enough money to finance it.

"So many of [Musk's] friends advised him not to do SpaceX," Luke Nosek, who helped build Paypal, one of Musk's former ventures, told news outlet Quartz in 2014.

In an article for Forbes in 2011, aerospace and defense writer Loren Thompson voiced concerns about NASA becoming overly dependent on the still-young SpaceX and also wrote that "Musk's enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring, but SpaceX's performance to date doesn't measure up to the rhetoric."

There was also doubt within NASA. Former NASA astronaut-turned-SpaceX engineer Garrett Reisman told CNN in 2020 there was a perception of SpaceX along the lines of "they're cowboys; they're dangerous; they're going to kill somebody."

Musk had made a name for himself by voicing lofty ambitions for the company. He espoused self-landing, reusable, cheap rockets and a wider goal of enabling humanity to become a multiplanetary species by colonizing Mars.

In 2012 SpaceX launched its first cargo delivery to the ISS, and in 2014 it was co-awarded the aforementioned NASA contract, with NASA's commercial crew program manager Kathy Lueders telling reporters: "[Boeing and SpaceX] proposed the value within which they were able to do the work and the government accepted that."

In May 2022, SpaceX was valued at $127 billion. Its Starlink network of thousands of internet satellites is well underway with over 3,000 in orbit. On August 30 it launched its 39th Falcon 9 rocket of 2022—the company's workhorse reusable launch vehicle—on a mission to deliver a batch of 46 Starlink satellites into space.

In April 2021, NASA tasked SpaceX with developing one of the most crucial aspects of the Artemis III mission to return American astronauts to the moon for the first time in over half a century—the Human Landing System (HLS). This is the spacecraft that will lower humans to the lunar surface, while NASA's Orion capsule remains in orbit around the moon.

Orion, developed at a cost of $20.4 billion, is NASA's next-generation human spaceflight capsule.

The plan for Artemis III is for SpaceX's huge upcoming Starship rocket and Orion to rendezvous in orbit around the moon. Two astronauts from the four-person crew will then transfer to Starship and descend to the lunar surface.

Once they are finished, Starship will launch the two astronauts back into orbit where they will transfer back into Orion and travel home.

SpaceX must keep in step with NASA and develop Starship from a rocket that has not yet flown into one that must be capable of supporting human crew and carrying out a lunar landing.

Falcon 9 rocket
A Falcon 9 rocket lifting off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida in June, 2017. SpaceX now regularly flies dozens of Falcon 9 missions per year. Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty

Nelson said SpaceX is "on track" to achieve it.

NASA was hoping to launch its huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket—the backbone of the Artemis program—on a test flight called Artemis I on September 3, but technical faults delayed that attempt as well as the previous one. It's unclear when the space agency will attempt another launch.

If successful, the launch will mark the start of the Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the moon by 2025 with the help of private companies like SpaceX.

NASA has spent 12 years and $23 billion developing SLS alone—and that's not taking into account the Orion capsule.

In contrast, SpaceX developed Starship so fast that it went from blowing up steel prototypes in 2020, to being just weeks away from an orbital flight—potentially before 2023.

In addition, SpaceX says that when Starship does fly, it will be significantly more powerful than SLS, producing a claimed 17 million lbs of thrust to SLS's 9.5 million.

Nelson says he does not see this as a threat. "The fact is, we've got a rocket that is human-rated," he said. "I'm a huge fan of what these commercial companies not only have done but will do. SpaceX has been very successful in getting Starship ready. But Starship goes [to the moon] and it's got to rendezvous in lunar polar orbit with Orion and the crew transfer and go down and come back up.

"But Starship is not capable, at that point, of getting back to Earth. Only Orion is capable of getting back to Earth."

Looking ahead, NASA's budget suggests it is committed to building up private spaceflight even more. According to the agency's 2021 fiscal report, it tends to spend around 80 percent on its budget on contracting.

It's unclear if that is set to increase or decrease, but with the agency's goal of getting to Mars by the 2040s, significant investment is likely. "So I want Blue Origin, I want SpaceX, I want all of the other companies to be successful because I want as many opportunities for us to explore the cosmos as possible," Nelson said.

"And because of that, I think it is a very exciting time for venturing out into the universe."