Wouldn't it be an unhealthy situation if NASA were to become too dependent on one company, for instance the only one that could launch heavy rockets ?
And also, if a private rocket company's existence depended on a contract from NASA?

From BBC news's: "Why Elon Musk's Spacex is launching astronauts for Nasa":

Musk was faced with an impossible choice: "I could either split the funds that I had between the two companies, or focus it on one company-with certain death for the other," he told Business Insider in 2013.
"I decided in the end to split what I had and try to keep both companies alive. But that could have been a terrible decision that could have resulted in both companies dying. "
Fortunately, on 23 December 2008, Nasa awarded SpaceX with a $1.6 bn contract to ferry cargo and supplies to the ISS. Describing his reaction, Musk said: "I couldn't even maintain my composure, I was like: 'I love you guys'."

One possible solution would be not to go into business with private companies. Are there are other options?

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    $\begingroup$ I believe that NASA has been legally encouraged to use a range of commercial companies to help ensure that there will always be choice in rocket providers. nasa.gov/centers/marshall/history/… $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Mar 21, 2021 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ "One solution could be not to go into business with private companies"...avoid dependence on one company for certain capabilities by refusing to make use of those capabilities? How is that a solution? You're not preventing the worst case scenario, you're forcing it while eliminating the possibility of anything better. $\endgroup$ Mar 21, 2021 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Cornelis that's an effective way of undermining any company that's put their own resources into developing the capability and ensuring nobody else makes the effort to do so. NASA did exactly that with the Shuttle, stagnating launch vehicle development and human exploration for several decades. $\endgroup$ Mar 21, 2021 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ I think you're overstating the issue. NASA has been more or less exclusively reliant on not one company, but one Country for decades: the Russians. Which is a lot worse than being reliant on SpaceX or whatever politically $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 22, 2021 at 9:27
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    $\begingroup$ @RockPaperLz-MaskitorCasket It is their stylistic choice. The BBC similarly spells the European Space Agency as "Esa" rather than "ESA", and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as "Nato" rather than "NATO". Their line of thinking is that if the acronym for some organization is well-recognized and is pronounced as if it was a word, then the BBC treats it as if it is a word. On the other hand, if the acronym for some organization is typically spelled out letter by letter (e.g., FBI), the BBC uses the all-caps form. That of course would include BBC itself. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2021 at 3:27

2 Answers 2


How can it be prevented that NASA would become (too) dependent on one rocket company or vice versa?

By doing exactly what NASA is doing right now.

In 2006 NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services funded several companies to develop alternatives to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). Later that year NASA downselected to two suppliers, SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler (RpK). NASA later awarded the remaining share of the monies that would have been given to RpK to Orbital Sciences when RpK failed to meet their obligations. NASA could instead have given all of those remaining monies to SpaceX or spend it on other programs. but it didn't do that because competition is good for NASA. NASA continues to use both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (now a part of Northrop Grumman) to provide supplies to the ISS to avoid relying on one supplier.

NASA continued the concept of multiple commercial suppliers with its Commercial Crew program. Once again, NASA downselected to two competitors, this time SpaceX and Boeing. Competition is good for NASA. It avoids having to rely on one provider.

One solution could be not to go into business with private companies.

That is not an option; it hasn't been since the Gemini program. NASA does not build their own rockets or their own spacecraft. They do however design them and then let contracts to private companies to implement those designs.

That has been problematic as of late. The never-flown Ares launch vehicle project was canceled, only to be replaced by the not-yet flown Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS project alone has cost NASA $19 billion, a good deal more money than the combined monies NASA invested in SpaceX, RpK, Orbital, and Boeing for the Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew programs.

One problem with the "old space" approach is an entrenched bureaucracy that knows only one way to do things. An even bigger problem is the US Congress, which has dictated which designs and which contractors NASA should use for the SLS. NASA hasn't built rockets for decades. Congress hasn't built a rocket, ever.

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    $\begingroup$ They do however design them and then let contracts to private companies to implement those designs. – This is an important point. Although NASA does outsource development to a private company, it's not like our (civilian) situation where a company makes what they make and we can either buy it or not. NASA is deeply involved in what SpaceX is doing. It's more than just "make us a rocket" and even more than "make us a rocket with these specs". For all intents and purposes, it's a detailed collaboration, but with one side providing the money and the other providing the resources. $\endgroup$
    – forest
    Mar 22, 2021 at 1:12
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    $\begingroup$ @forest It certainly is true that NASA does still get involved, and it is also true that some of these NASA decisions have significant repercussions on the design. For example, NASA nixed the idea of landing the Crew Dragon on land. That decision had significant design impacts. Nonetheless, the design does not belong to NASA. It instead belongs to the commercial provider, and that changes things. Lots and lots of things. $\endgroup$ Mar 22, 2021 at 3:38
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    $\begingroup$ @forest What NASA is doing with SpaceX is not "design them and let contracts to private companies implement them". This is a new way of working for NASA where NASA "produces specifications and lets private companies design spacecraft". This has worked well for the US military since WW1 but hasn't been the way NASA has been doing business until very recently. NASA has always designed their own spacecraft only leaving the detailed designs of components like doors, hinges, seals etc. to private contractors. $\endgroup$
    – slebetman
    Mar 23, 2021 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ The level of specification NASA is providing is basically, "it has to be able to go to A orbit, connect to B hatch on the ISS, have C minimum requirements for life support, D abort capability, and communicate/interface with E other systems". $\endgroup$
    – David
    Mar 23, 2021 at 16:19
  • $\begingroup$ It really is little more than making a rocket with given specifications. NASA shares data and participates in design reviews to ensure the design satisfies their specifications, but does not dictate design details. They did not rule out powered Crew Dragon landings, they ruled out use of operational cargo flights for testing them, and SpaceX didn't want to take on the cost of dedicated test flights. And they had no say on SpaceX's development of F9 booster recovery and reuse or the modifications to support Falcon Heavy, only on the use of reused boosters for their own flights. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2021 at 16:21

Wouldn't it be an unhealty situation when NASA would become (too) dependent on one company, for instance the only one that could launch heavy rockets ?

Sure, and this was the case from 2006 to around 2010, when ULA, as manufacturer of both the Atlas V and Delta IV launcher families, was the sole provider for NASA and DoD.

Under these circumstances, ULA had no incentive to reduce costs, since it seemed unlikely that some scrappy little entrepreneur would scrape up the US\$5B or so needed to develop a new launcher family to compete with them. Then SpaceX came along...

And also, when a private rocket company's existence would depend on a contract from NASA ?

Many private companies' existences depend on a single contract, whether with the government or another client. It's never an ideal situation for those companies; they work hard to diversify their client base so that the loss of one contract doesn't cause the company to fail outright. In the case of SpaceX, if NASA stopped giving them business, they could continue as a commercial launch provider; they just wouldn't have the resources to do things like crashing three prototype Starships in as many months.

One solution could be not to go into business with private companies, but maybe there are other options ?

If NASA had an internal launcher division instead of outsourcing launcher development, then you'd hear a lot of complaints about how inefficient it was and how private enterprise could do the same job for much less money and develop new technologies a lot faster. (In the case of SpaceX, that might even be true.) The lobbying wouldn't stop until some private aerospace corporation was getting the money to build launchers.

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    $\begingroup$ Such an "internal launcher division" would also be competing against commercial launchers using government backing. This is problematic even for launch systems developed for NASA by outside contractors. Look at the effect the Shuttle had on launch vehicle development, for example. $\endgroup$ Mar 21, 2021 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, ULA is a suitable example, but I meant if SpaceX becomes the only company that can deliver rockets for transport of people and heavy equipment to the Moon and Mars then NASA would become dependent on them, wouldn't they ? $\endgroup$
    – Cornelis
    Mar 21, 2021 at 17:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Cornelis Yes, of course it would, and that's true of every vendor NASA (or any other organization) works with. If there's only one food services company that can stock NASA's cafeterias, NASA would become dependent on them. For that to happen, though, ULA would have to get out of the medium-lift launcher business before Blue Origin or any other company got into it. $\endgroup$ Mar 21, 2021 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ Note that the lobbying would be by companies hoping to get that money to build launchers. And by lobbying, we mean "spend money on politicians and give money to politicians"; government agencies don't get to bribe politicians, while if you privatize it you can get kickbacks in the form of political contributions to such a great supporter of private industry. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Mar 22, 2021 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Cornelis Which is why NASA is only spending a part of their budget (way less than half) for resupply delivery on SpaceX. They'll keep funding other private companies in parallel until someone else becomes as successful as SpaceX (which is a weird sentence to say because it was SpaceX that had to work hard to become as successful as their well established competitors like Lockheed, Boeing, Rocketdyne etc. to prove that this new business model works for NASA) $\endgroup$
    – slebetman
    Mar 23, 2021 at 1:27

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