Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Given the rapid success of private space companies, NASA has gone through some profound soul-searching about what its role should be in the rest of the 21st century.

The answer: NASA will continue to be a trailblazer for those private sector innovators. In other words, NASA — and not the billionaires — will still be shining the light. Specifically, NASA — which celebrated its 60th anniversary this week — will prove concepts for private missions in low-Earth orbit, to the Moon or Mars, NASA administrator James Bridenstine tells Axios.

What's next: Bridenstine told Axios in June that NASA’s job is not to do the “routine” things, but rather to pioneer new technologies and missions. In certain circumstances then, NASA would be yet one customer among many, he said.

  • The first test of this vision will come when, assuming the Trump administration gets its way, the Space Station is turned over to the private sector sometime after 2024, opening up low-Earth orbit to more commercial applications.
  • In addition, NASA's goal of returning to the moon is in large part motivated by growing commercial interest in activities such as mining, tourism and developing a supply station for deep space missions.
“So what NASA needs to do, in essence, is blaze the trail and then let commercial [entities] come in and continue the operations after the trail has been blazed. And then we go a step further where commercial isn't quite ready or willing to go based on return on investment.”
— James Bridenstine, NASA administrator

Bridenstine has earned negative headlines for recommending the space agency study the possibility of allowing companies to sponsor NASA missions, raising the prospect of rockets painted with company logos or named after them, like sports stadiums. He’s also spoken of the need to make the agency’s astronauts more household names.

They're not alone: It’s not just NASA that is moving aggressively to tap into the capabilities of the private sector. So, too, are other federal agencies active in space, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) new "Ride Share" program for private satellites. NASA is also exploring buying data from private companies to supplement its many Earth imaging satellites.

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