Could NASA Beat SpaceX in the Next Space Race?

By Rich Smith Markets Fool.com

On Tuesday, March 21, President Donald Trump signed a bill into law, officially funding NASA to the tune of $19.5 billion this year.

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The new law, officially dubbed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, goes into effect on October 1 -- not a moment too soon, given that Trump's own budget proposal, published last month, suggests that by 2018, he hopes to cut NASA's budget to just $19.1 billion.

SpaceX wants to occupy Mars (and all NASA may get is this t-shirt). Image source: SpaceX.

New thinking in space

Why does Trump want to cut the NASA budget? In part, it's because his view of the space agencyis that it's trying to do too much. As the Trump Administration sees it, NASA's mission should be to advance the exploration of deep space, the region far outside Earth orbit.

Closer to home, though, Trump sees the region between Earth and Moon as one that can be "rapidly and affordably" developed and exploited by private industry. Already, private companies such as SpaceX and Orbital ATK (NYSE: OA) have proven themselves more than capable of keeping the International Space Station supplied with beans and biscuits, while start-ups like Axiom Spaceand Bigelow Aerospacehave proposed building entirely new, privately built and operated space stations in orbit.

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Large satellite launch is also being well taken care of by private enterprise, including stalwarts Boeing (NYSE: BA), Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT), and Airbus (NASDAQOTH: EADSY)as well as newcomers SpaceX and Blue Origin. Meanwhile, a new generation of launch companies with names like Vector Space, Rocket Lab, and Virgin Orbit is arising to offer innovative ways to put small satellites in orbit on the cheap.

Long story short? "It has become clear to the space community that the real innovative work is being done outside of NASA," argues Trump advisor and former Congressman Robert Walker. Now it's time to turn over Earth orbit missions (and maybe even lunar development) to private industry and point taxpayer-funded NASA farther downrange.

Heeding the call

How will NASA respond to Trump's call to go "where no [private company] has gone before," and leave the mundane tasks of space station supply, and even satellite launch, to private industry seeking private profits? Apparently, with a will.

Perhaps irked by Walker's "innovative work" comment, earlier this year, NASA began floating plans to move up the schedule for a first manned spaceflight aboard one of its new Space Launch System (SLS) -- a multibillion-dollar project to build an interplanetary spacecraft (with help from Boeing, Lockheed, and Orbital ATK) to carry astronauts to Mars.

NASA had planned to conduct its first SLS launch on a drone mission (dubbed "EM-1") in late 2018, and only put crew aboard the spacecraft after all of the kinks had been worked out -- probably no sooner than 2021 (mission "EM-2"), and potentially as late as 2023. Now, though, the space agency says it could roll the dice and send astronauts up on the very first EM-1 mission instead.

This move would be a big gamble for NASA. It would also require the "mitigation" of "potential technical and schedule challenges," says Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Allison Miller. And it would almost certainly delay the first launch of SLS into 2019, or perhaps even 2020. If NASA and its partners can get the work done on time, though, the upside could be substantial -- accelerating the proofing of SLS as capable of manned spaceflight by as much as three, or even four years.

What it means to investors (and Elon Musk fans)

So, why take the risk? Perhaps because the same private space companies that President Trump sees replacing NASA's role in Earth orbit are also challenging the space agency's new role as the vanguard of interplanetary exploration. Last year, Elon Musk announced a bold plan to send a lone drone "Dragon 2" spacecraft to Mars in 2018, followed by multiple similarly unmanned missions to preposition supplies on the Red Planet, followed then by a manned landing on Mars in 2025.

If he succeeds in this, Musk and SpaceX could beat NASA, Boeing, Lockheed, and Orbital -- all of the giants of spaceflight heretofore -- to Mars by nearly a decade. Last we heard, the earliest NASA thinks it can get there with SLS is 2034. Given the yawning gap in timelines, it's unlikely that NASA can beat SpaceX to Mars even with an accelerated "manning" of SLS. But if it's to have any chance at all of catching up to the private space pioneer, NASA must take some risks.

The consequence of not taking those risks could be to concede that companies like SpaceX and its kin have made NASA obsolete -- putting billions of dollars in contracts with Boeing, Lockheed, and the rest, at risk -- and putting the fate of NASA itself in jeopardy.

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Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Orbital ATK. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.