September 27, 2022 — Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the commercial space launch sector has been thriving after a period of stagnation. The U.S. government has a long history of promoting the industry, most notably with the passing of the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984. But the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and its programmatic priorities have typically shaped both the legislation and the launch industry. But the new market entrants are pursuing goals of affordable and repeatable access to space independent of the space agency. With this context, the paper asks if NASA has been a leader or a follower of the emergence of the modern space age.
The author argues that while the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) legislation keeps pace with the fast-evolving commercial launch sector, NASA is falling behind, both technically and organizationally. Its tendency to preserve a government-owned resource-heavy program posture focuses on how to build it instead of what to build and why. The paper concludes with a recommendation that NASA can make a structural change and right-size itself to be a cutting-edge mission-focused space agency. Bold action is the only way that NASA can restore its place as a leader in the modern space age and leave followership behind.