On Saturday morning SpaceX will attempt to launch its Crew Dragon spacecraft for the first time, marking the latest step in a relationship between NASA and the California rocket company that has now spanned 13 years. It has been a fruitful relationship for both.
For SpaceX, funding from NASA allowed the company to accelerate development of its world-class Falcon 9 rocket from a single-engine booster.
Perhaps more importantly, sustained funding for cargo missions to the station (16 have flown so far) has provided the operational breathing room to continue to improve the Falcon 9 rocket, practice landing it, and make reusable rocketry a reality. Now, with crewed missions nearing, SpaceX may soon become the first private company to ever launch humans into orbit.
NASA, in turn, has gotten a good deal. SpaceX has consistently offered services to the space agency—for cargo, crew, and science experiments—that cost less than competitors and for far less than it would have cost NASA to develop those capabilities independently.
“If we did this the NASA way, we’d do it the classic old way, we would base it on our pedigree and our other activities,” the space agency’s chief of human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, said recently regarding the commercial crew program. “This way, they’re pushing us, and they’re forcing us to look at things in a new way, and I think that’s really cool.”
It hasn’t always been easy. NASA is a large, bureaucratic organization used to doing things its own way. They have the money and the spaceflight heritage and can therefore tell contractors how things should be done. SpaceX, by contrast, is of a more modern Silicon Valley mindset, less bounded by tradition and old experience. The surest way to draw founder Elon Musk’s ire is to respond to one of his questions by saying, “Because that’s how things have always been done.”
Here is an example of the differing cultures. NASA’s legendary flight director, Gene Kranz, entitled his memoir , referring to his days in mission control from the Mercury missions through the Apollo program. That mindset helped Kranz and teams of engineers at Johnson Space Center heroically bring the crew of Apollo 13 safely home. The phrase “failure is not an option” has become a cornerstone of the agency’s identity. Yet even before his first NASA contract, in an interview for a 2005 article in FastCompany, Musk made clear his disdain for this philosophy: “There’s a silly notion that failure’s not an option at NASA,” he said. “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
And yet the cultures have come together, to some extent, as NASA and SpaceX have worked on commercial crew. In this case, failure really is not an option, because NASA’s primary goal is to get its astronauts to and from the International Space Station safely.
“We’re doing things that are really risky,” Gerstenmaier said. “The designs and the complexity of what we have to do, strapping human beings on rockets with millions of pounds of thrust, and hurling them into orbit to go attach to a space station isn’t trivial. We’re all trying to solve the same physical problems, and it’s fun working with a new partner that approaches the problem in a slightly different way. They don’t carry the same background that we did, don’t approach the design the way we did.”
One of the things that NASA has been able to do for SpaceX is to bring some of its operational experience—and emphasis on safety—to the process of developing a commercial spacecraft for humans to fly in.
“They keep us honest,” said SpaceX Vice President of Build and Flight Reliability Hans Koenigsmann during a news conference leading up to Saturday morning’s launch of the Crew Dragon vehicle. “We have, I want to say, constructive conflicts sometimes, and discussions about how to do this right.” In the end, however, he believes the result is the safest capsule possible.
Two NASA astronauts—Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken—will fly on the first crewed Dragon flight later this year, or early in 2020. They have been at the tip of the spear, representing NASA on almost weekly trips to SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. In an interview, Hurley admitted there have been challenges.
“Were there growing pains? Sure. Are there still cultural differences? Absolutely,” he said. “But it’s been amazing to see both organizations, in a sense, maybe not change but adjust to the other, and the sum of the parts ends up being very successful.”
A good deal
First funded in 2010, the commercial crew program built upon NASA’s private cargo delivery service to the International Space Station. With the Space Shuttle’s looming retirement, the Obama White House sought to extend that public-private partnership approach to people. “We wanted to take the best of both worlds, the heritage and expertise of NASA, and combine it with the uniquely American energies of entrepreneurs,” said Phil Larson, then an official in the White House who helped steer the program’s development.
NASA’s cargo and crew programs differed from NASA’s traditional development programs in a key way. Instead of a top-down approach, in which NASA set the requirements and told contractors precisely what to build, commercial crew was more of a partnership. For its new human-rated capsules, NASA told SpaceX and its competitor Boeing that the agency wanted to send its crews safely into space and then left the companies to work out the details. NASA has had oversight, of course, and has been deeply involved from day one, but these projects were led by the companies.
This approach gave the companies more flexibility in their design. SpaceX and Boeing invested their own capital into their spacecraft. And they could also think about marketing the use of their vehicles to private customers. As a result, NASA has saved money. This fixed-price contracting approach, as opposed to the old paradigm of cost-plus, has saved NASA and the United States billions of dollars.
If this new method of financing exploration programs works—and we really won’t know for sure until the first humans begin safely launching and landing—then NASA and decision-makers in Washington DC will be more emboldened to allow private companies to bring innovative ideas and cost-cutting approaches to the government as NASA expands into the Solar System.
That is probably a good thing. Hurley, one of the NASA astronauts slated to fly on Crew Dragon, says he sees a lot of the old agency in his trips to Hawthorne—the lean and hungry NASA of the 1960s.
“In some ways SpaceX probably would be similar to the way NASA was in the 1960s, when we were getting ready to go to the Moon,” he said. NASA then was much younger, with a workforce mostly in its 20s. The average SpaceX employee is 29 years old, and just like NASA in the 1960s, they have their own space race to run.