Space Exploration Is Changing. Is NASA Ready?

A large rocket before launch, positioned next to a tall building with the American flag and the NASA logo. Photographers adjust cameras on tripods in the foreground, hoping to capture the launch.
The Artemis I rocket prior to launch in November 2022. Gregg Newton/AFP via Getty Images

In June, Colorado-based Wilson Aerospace sued aeronautics giant Boeing for allegedly stealing trade secrets and violating intellectual property rights. The case involves Boeing’s work on NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, a rocket designed to eventually land astronauts and cargo on the moon. Wilson claims Boeing’s actions cost Wilson “hundreds of millions of dollars” and placed astronauts at risk.

The suit revolves primarily around Wilson’s proprietary Fluid Fitting Torque Device, a tool designed for “tightening and loosening fittings,” especially in “cramped, difficult to access areas on spacecraft.” Wilson accuses Boeing of “stealing, misappropriating, and infringing … intellectual property” to design its own version of the device, used to attach the main engines to the SLS rocket. But Wilson also claims the problem goes much deeper. “Because Boeing covertly stole Wilson’s intellectual property without receiving the full instructions on how to properly build, install, and use it,” Wilson alleges in its suit, “several of the aerospace and aviation products built by Boeing are pockmarked with critical safety flaws that put lives at risk.”

It’s unclear how this particular case, the allegations of which Boeing denies, will turn out. But the suit provides a window into a larger question—whether NASA is capable of overseeing the collage of contractors that will continue to gain power in the future of space exploration. It also presents an important lesson: As space exploration becomes increasingly crowded with private companies, and increasingly ambitious with new missions, NASA needs to rework its contracting and oversight processes. Spacefaring nations also need to overhaul the treaties and regulations that govern space.

In 2022, NASA spent over 70 percent of its more than $20 billion annual budget on contracts with private companies—including the largest recipients: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, and Orbital Sciences. These companies, in turn, often employ various subcontractors to fulfill procurement requests (as Boeing did with Wilson). This creates a sort of tiered waterfall of oversight responsibility for NASA—and could also create troubling incentives for companies like Boeing, which face increasing pressure in the commercial space race.

The SLS helps illustrate this tension. While the Artemis I mission (the first of a series of SLS missions, and the one predominantly in question in the Wilson lawsuit) was eventually successful, the rocket and Orion spacecraft came in years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget—not great for NASA or the contractors involved. In fact, Boeing’s problems with the SLS mission are cited by Wilson Aerospace as motive: “In 2015, Boeing was dangerously close to losing billions of dollars in future revenue from NASA, because it could not figure out how to install the engines on the Space Launch System,” the lawsuit alleges.

This competitive pressure is real, because there’s a lot on the line for private companies in space as the industry presents rapidly expanding opportunities—both for private operations and collaborations with NASA. In 2019, NASA revealed plans to allow private-sector experiments and cargo, as well as commercial astronauts, onto the International Space Station. The private sector has also won agreements to construct a space station to replace the aging ISS.

Increasing privatization, though, also increases NASA’s responsibilities to ensure the proper use of resources and the safety of its astronauts and other staff. NASA’s results as an oversight agency are mixed. Following the disastrous Columbia launch in 2003 and a scathing review of the agency’s safety culture, NASA put significant effort into ensuring launch safety. And admittedly, NASA has not had a fatal spacecraft accident in the 20 years since.

Still, there are documented concerns with the effectiveness of NASA’s integrated testing (where components of a mission are tested together), and the agency’s own Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel has expressed concerns regarding its safety culture. Roger Handberg, a professor at the University of Central Florida who specializes in space, technology, and defense policy, told me that as mission infrastructure is increasingly outsourced to companies outside of NASA, sometimes those within the agency charged with the supervision of mission components “are technically competent, but they are not familiar with exactly what’s going on, because they haven’t built rockets before.” Companies like SpaceX and Boeing have also been given more oversight over their own spacecraft for crewed missions; in the aftermath of the 2015 SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explosion, the company was allowed to lead its own investigation without NASA’s independent review.

These gaps in oversight also extend to logistical and financial issues. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has already asked for increased oversight into the Artemis missions, arguing that previous approaches by the agency “place[d] billions of dollars at risk of insufficient NASA oversight.” Even the agency’s rollout of new spacesuits for a future moon landing was expensive and behind schedule, leading the agency to spend more money on two commercial contracts for the development of alternative options.

So, what can be done? It’s useful to think about two different types of regulation in the space arena. First, we need to ensure that NASA-led missions improve their track record for keeping private contracts on time and at budget. This includes, as NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin has noted, improving the NASA contracting system to ensure increased competition among bidders and updating project management operations. Martin also cited the need to crack down on grant fraud, including inflated labor costs and materially false statements in private companies’ applications. Importantly, NASA should also shift toward fixed-price contracts, which force private companies building space systems to take on unanticipated expenses. (The alternative, cost-plus contracts, often force NASA to swallow additional costs that arise for delays or overruns beyond the original contract—like the cost increases with the SLS.)

Second, the U.S. and other major spacefaring nations need to improve how they regulate private space operations. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 forms the foundation of current international space law, but this framework couldn’t have predicted the regulatory needs of the present. As it stands, each individual state party to the treaty is responsible for the “authorization and supervision” of private commercial companies operating in their jurisdiction. This is critical because private organizations are not parties to the treaty or bound by its obligations. But while the U.S. is a leader in the space industry, even its domestic regulations for private spaceflight are woefully lacking. To ensure safe operations, delineate property rights, mitigate debris, and protect state security, the U.S. needs a new centralized regulatory framework. These tough policy decisions will also require negotiating with foreign nations that at times disagree with the United States’ interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty.

As space exploration expands, decentralizes, and privatizes, U.S. regulators and officials urgently need more effective methods of keeping it safe and efficient. We also need more effective transnational agreements for the ever-expanding scientific and commercial atmosphere in space. In their absence, mankind may be left with fatal missteps instead of giant leaps.