The May 30 NASA launch has been publicized as an extraordinary event—the first crewed mission to the International Space Station on a privately owned SpaceX spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. What is just as interesting is the question of whether it opens an ambitious new chapter in U.S. space exploration and science—and the mission-critical infrastructure needed to support it.
Adam Jonas, a space industry analyst for Morgan Stanley, compares the advent of regular, lower-cost launches to low earth orbit, the kind being pioneered by SpaceX and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to the invention of the elevator, of all things. It required several decades to develop, but the elevator changed the nature of building construction and cities. Jonas considers the type of launch and mission epitomized by the May 30 liftoff as another step in creating a routine, lower-cost system of putting humans up into low earth orbit—and triggering an expanded, flourishing space industry.
NASA’s budget, now about $19 billion a year, and big engineering and construction companies that count on the agency for a lot of work, stand to be winners. The mission’s success will help fend off critics who prefer federal resources to be spent on the pressing troubles on earth.
Five companies in the ENR Top 500 Design Firms and Top 400 Contractors lists are among NASA’s biggest contract award winners from the previous year. They perform design engineering, testing and certification tasks on rockets and spacecraft built by or for the agency. They also perform studies and analyses, and design and build needed facilities at 10 major NASA space centers around the country.
Jacobs, the publicly-traded (NYSE-J) Dallas-based engineering giant, says it is NASA’s biggest service provider. The space agency’s list of its top contract awards to businesses for 2019 puts the Jacobs Technology unit in third place at $916 million, making up 6.34% of the year’s total. Only aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp. ranked higher.
Other construction-related companies that won NASA contracts in fiscal 2019 were KBR Inc., at $613 million; Bechtel Group Inc., $297 million; AECOM, $164 million; and Walsh Group, $31 million.
The agency’s space programs have never enjoyed total public support, and its budget is down dramatically from its high points in the 1960s, when it accounted for 4.5% of total federal spending. President Donald Trump, in remarks about the launch, emphasized NASA’s role in job creation. For now, the successful launch and docking delivered everything the advocates of space flight hoped for.