Elon Musk and the people at SpaceX are rightly basking in the afterglow of finally landing the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on a drone barge in the Atlantic. The same flight delivered an expandable module built by Bigelow Aerospace to the International Space Station. But, as Ares Technica points out, the launch, landing, and arrival at the space station would not have taken place had it not been for the generosity of NASA.

The story goes back to 2004 when President George W. Bush announced his new space policy. Besides a revived effort to send American astronauts back to the moon, then to Mars and beyond, the second Bush began the Commercial Orbital Transportation System program that would commercialize first cargo and then crew flights to and from the International Space Station.

Fast forward over four years later. SpaceX, having endured a number of launch failures of its small Falcon 1 rocket, was running out of cash. At the same time, the company was trying to develop the much larger and more complex Falcon 9 that would compete with more established launch vehicles such as the Atlas 5 and the Delta 4. SpaceX was teetering on the brink of financial ruin, a fate that had befallen a number of commercial launch companies for the previous 20 years or so.

Then NASA announced the initial contracts for COTS cargo flights. SpaceX’s share was $1.6 billion. The NASA contract saved the company and allowed it to press on with building the Falcon 9 and the Dragon and then successfully compete for the Commercial Crew contracts.

It should be added that without the International Space Station, no destination would exist for commercial spacecraft delivering cargo and crew into space.

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The ISS and its predecessor program, Space Station Freedom, endured a number of near death experiences in Congress before President Bill Clinton saved the project and brought in Russia as a full partner. The opposition to the space station was an odd coalition of liberals and libertarians who hated large scale space projects, each for their own reasons.

The narrative is crucial because a lot of commercial space advocates (as opposed to people actually working in commercial space, who know better) speak of NASA with lots of disdain and contempt. NASA is a stodgy, ruled bound, bureaucratic organization that can’t do anything right. The accusation is an exaggeration, but enough truth exists within it to create some resonance. NASA, the cool kid of the 1960s when it was landing men on the moon, had become the outcast, overweight nerd of the aerospace world. SpaceX and the other commercial space companies have become the new cool kids.

Of course, a difference exists between expounding on commercial space on the internet and at various conferences and actually working in commercial space.

The former can bloviate to one another without much consequence. The latter knows that NASA, for all its faults, is a crucial partner and customer without which they would not exist.

Come to think of it, the Bigelow expandable module, BEAM, would not exist were it not for the fact that NASA developed the technology as part of the transhab program and then licensed it to the company.

The bottom line is that NASA vs. commercial space arguments is as silly as the older robots vs astronauts controversy that used to plague space policy deliberations. The commercial space sector would not exist without NASA. In return, NASA gets goods and services at a far lower price than if it tried to procure them the traditional way. Thus, the two have settled into a symbiotic relationship in which one prospers so does the other.