Re: Trailblazer or also ran
Noone is suggesting SpaceX are technically superior to anyone in particular in NASA, current or historical. They're certainly organisationally superior to many established players in the fact they have no associated baggage or legacy, which makes them nimble and agile.
You don't have to be doing things new to be impressive. Lots of people died trying to go to the South Pole. Once it had been done, noone set foot again at the South Pole again for decades (though people visited the continent), by which time they'd worked out how to do things reasonably safely, and they went with aircraft delivered by the commercial aviation industry. These days, most people who go to Antarctica don't die, despite it remaining a hazardous and hostile environment.
Similarly, NASA did amazing things with a blank cheque in the 60s. Since then it has slowed, working out how to do those things - and more - without killing their astronauts in the process. The level of risk they were prepared to accept dropped after they had proved it could be done at all.
So what that kerosene rockets are an established technology? Internal Combustion engines are old hat, that doesn't mean a new Ford EcoBoost is comparable to a 2hp unit from 1902 or that the engineers are any less skilled in their trade. Similarly SpaceX will employ plenty of people the intellectual equal to the early space cadre engineers. Doesn't mean they're better, but it's also not ass backward - they're not inferior either just because (by chance of birth) they weren't first or because they don't have to do it with a slide rule and test their theories by putting a physical rocket on the pad - they can blow shit up in computers before they have to spend money on fabricating something which could kill the person strapped to the top of it.