Musk’s SpaceX Vies With Boeing as NASA’s Taxi to Station

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk
Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., speaks at the unveiling of the Manned Dragon V2 Space Taxi in Hawthorne, California, on May 29, 2014. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing Co. are contending for more than $3 billion in funding to resume U.S. manned spaceflight with the first commercial venture to fly humans into orbit.

The contract to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017 in so-called space taxis would end U.S. reliance on Russian rockets since the space shuttle was retired three years ago. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration set a deadline to announce the award this month.

For Musk, winning would be a pivotal step toward his dream of colonizing Mars, while a Boeing victory would extend its half-century history with the U.S. space program. A third rival, Sierra Nevada Corp., offers a winged, shuttle-type vehicle as it seeks to expand beyond supplying rockets for sub-orbital tourist trips on Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

“Boeing is the safe choice, SpaceX is the exciting choice and Sierra Nevada the interesting choice,” Loren Thompson, an analyst with Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based research group, said in a phone interview.

NASA is charting a new direction 45 years after sending humans to the Moon, looking to private industry for missions near Earth, such as commuting to and from the space station. Commercial operators would develop space tourism while the space agency focuses on distant trips to Mars or asteroids.

Funding History

Boeing and SpaceX probably have the leading concepts, based on the funding NASA provided to refine their designs, and a split contract may be more likely than a winner-take-all decision, said Brian Friel, a government contracts analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence in Washington.

“The odds are higher for a joint award,” Friel said in a telephone interview. NASA has said it might select more than one winner.

Boeing’s proposed CST-100 capsule received $480 million under NASA funding awarded in 2012, compared with $400 million for SpaceX’s Dragon V2 capsule and $219.5 million for Sierra Nevada’s orbiter. Blue Origin, a concept backed by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, received no funding and continues to hone its design, according to NASA’s website.

Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesman, declined to comment on the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract, as the program is formally known.

While both SpaceX and Boeing have designed reusable capsules seating as many as seven people, their business strategies -- and technology -- couldn’t be more different.

Startup Culture

Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur who shook up the auto industry with Tesla Motors Inc.’s battery-powered cars, nurtures a Silicon Valley startup culture at SpaceX. In 11 years, the Hawthorne, California-based company, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has earned a reputation for setting audacious goals while evolving from making rockets to becoming the first private cargo hauler to the space station.

The commercial crew contract is a steppingstone to making humanity into a “multiplanetary species,” starting with Mars, according to Musk, who said that desire is one of the reasons he backed off an earlier plan to pursue an initial public offering.

“The reason I haven’t taken SpaceX public is the goals of SpaceX are very long-term, which is to establish a city on Mars,” Musk, 43, told reporters at a Sept. 8 briefing in Tokyo.

Musk declined via e-mail this week to discuss SpaceX’s chances or assess his competitors. The Dragon V2 spacecraft is designed to return to Earth and land vertically under its own power on a launch pad, a break with years of NASA practice of relying on parachutes to cushion an ocean landing.

No ‘Moonshots’

Boeing, the world’s biggest aerospace company, is focused on shareholder value, disciplined execution and avoiding oversize bets on technology leaps that Chief Executive Officer Jim McNerney terms “moonshots.”

Boeing’s entry is the only one of the contestants to have met all of the design and integration milestones on the deadlines set by NASA, while SpaceX and Sierra Nevada requested extensions. That should win the aerospace giant points with NASA, said Thompson, whose research group has done work for Boeing and Sierra Nevada.

While the Boeing vehicle’s exterior echoes the Apollo lunar capsules of the 1960s, its interior embodies another McNerney tenet of sharing technology across product lines. The spacecraft borrows the “Sky Interior” lighting Boeing created for its jetliners and seating developed for the 787 Dreamliner cockpit. It would still use parachute recovery.

Space History

“We’ve had this great advantage of reaching across different parts of our company for areas of innovation,” Kelly Kaplan, a spokeswoman for Boeing’s space exploration unit, said in a phone interview. As to putting humans in space, “We’ve been doing it for 50 years.”

Sierra Nevada is no stranger to U.S. contract competitions or spaceflight. Besides making rockets for Branson’s planned venture for quick hops into space, the Sparks, Nevada-based manufacturer launches commercial satellites and was chosen in 2013 to provide light-attack planes for Afghanistan’s military.

Unlike the other entrants, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser would land like an airplane on any military runway big enough for a narrow-body jet. The orbiter is the only craft nimble enough to repair satellites, among the capabilities that have drawn interest from 21 countries and earned it the nickname SUV, for “space utility vehicle,” Mark Sirangelo, who heads Sierra Nevada’s space systems division, said in a phone interview.

“If Sierra Nevada were to win, it would be because of that design,” said Friel, the Bloomberg Intelligence analyst.

Shared Award

A shared Boeing-SpaceX award as envisioned by Friel would match NASA’s use of both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to take cargo to the space station.

Funding two ventures may raise development costs while also fostering competition and giving NASA an alternative if one vehicle encounters technical difficulties, said Marco Caceres, director of space studies with Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant.

Congressional opposition to a similar arrangement for the crew contract has waned as the fraying U.S.-Russia relationship focuses attention on NASA’s dependence on Soyuz rockets to put astronauts into orbit, Caceres said in a telephone interview.

“The Russians have done NASA a favor in terms of funding,” Caceres said.

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