America Has Outsourced Its Spaceflight Dreams to Elon Musk
In the winter of 2010, the private aerospace company SpaceX was set to launch a capsule as a demonstration for NASA, hoping to prove that it could, someday, deliver supplies to the International Space Station. When engineers inspected the Falcon 9 rocket just days before takeoff, they discovered a crack on an engine nozzle. Dismantling the hardware, fixing the faulty piece, and putting it all back together would take weeks, and officials at SpaceX didn’t want to wait that long. Instead, Elon Musk, the company’s billionaire CEO and chief engineer, sent a technician with a pair of shears to Cape Canaveral to cut around the crack and trim the troublesome part away.
“There were NASA engineers banging their hands against the wall, saying, ‘What are we doing?’” Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut and a SpaceX adviser, recalled in a recent interview. “This is crazy. This is insane.” On more than one occasion, Musk’s move-fast-and-break-things mantra was diametrically opposed to NASA’s slow-and-steady ethos.
The rocket made a flawless flight. But if someone had told those engineers that nearly a decade later, NASA would be willing to strap two of its finest astronauts into a SpaceX capsule and wave them off into space, they probably wouldn’t have believed it. “There was a real lack of mutual trust, and there was virtually no mutual respect,” said Reisman, who worked on the program.
Yet that moment is here. This afternoon, if the weather cooperates, SpaceX will attempt to launch two NASA astronauts from Cape Canaveral on the space agency’s behalf.
Even without a global pandemic as a backdrop, the stakes are high. The astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, are seasoned space travelers with four shuttle flights between them (and, in a delightful twist, are also best friends). But SpaceX has never launched people, and NASA has never given this much responsibility to a contractor before. Americans last flew on a brand-new spacecraft in 1981.
A successful journey would mark the beginning of a new epoch in America’s space program. NASA has outsourced perhaps its most consequential task: delivering human beings beyond the boundary that separates us from the rest of the universe, and then bringing them home. And it has given the job not to a fellow spacefaring nation, but to a domestic contractor that has been flying rockets to orbit for just over a decade. Hurley and Behnken will be the first to fly on a truly private spacecraft, designed from top to bottom by engineers who work for Musk, not the space agency. It is a grand experiment, but it is also the future of spaceflight, where commercial companies do the work of flying people beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
If the mission succeeds, SpaceX is poised to capture the national imagination as NASA once did. If something goes wrong, the next era of American human spaceflight might end before it gets a real chance to start.
If the story of American human spaceflight were narrowed to a single point on a map, expressed by a simple set of coordinates, it would fall on this stretch of sandy coastline in central Florida. This is where the Mercury astronauts, the first Americans to reach space, took off; where the Gemini astronauts left to practice high-flying maneuvers over Earth’s atmosphere, and the Apollo moonwalkers braced themselves for the journey of a lifetime; where the space shuttles launched, and where they were recovered when crews were tragically lost. For more than half a century, if NASA astronauts wanted to leave the planet, they did it from Cape Canaveral’s shores.
In 2011, an American space shuttle rose elegantly into the air over the coast. Spectators watched from below in awe as the spacecraft soared away from them, only no one was inside. The shuttle wasn’t going to space.
The country’s shuttles were placed atop airplanes that year and flown, the old-fashioned way, to new homes in museums across the U.S. where they would go on display. After three decades and 135 missions, the program was over, and America’s astronauts had to find another way to reach space.
For the past nine years, NASA astronauts have launched with Russian cosmonauts, squeezed shoulder to shoulder in a small capsule that takes off from Kazakhstan. Together, they fly to humankind’s only off-world home, the ISS. Although the former Cold War rivals share the station, the Americans haven’t been keen to rely on the Russians for a ride. After all, shouldn’t the nation that landed people on the moon be able to send them into the space above Earth?
Three years after the space shuttles left Cape Canaveral for good, SpaceX moved in, signing a lease on the country’s most famous launchpad.
That same year, 2014, NASA granted SpaceX a billion-dollar contract to build a new astronaut-transportation system. The agency gave a similar deal to Boeing. There were no in-house options then; George W. Bush had canceled the shuttle program, and Barack Obama had canceled Bush’s plan to build a new fleet of vehicles to fly astronauts to the space station and beyond.
The new program, known as Commercial Crew, was meant to help NASA ditch the Russians and fly its astronauts on something that could bear a “Made in America” tag. The arrangement with Roscosmos, the Russian agency, wasn’t cheap: In the past decade, the cost of a single Soyuz seat has risen from about $50 million to $90 million. The U.S. space-shuttle program had been canceled in part because it was too expensive, and NASA hoped that by turning the job over to the private sector, and hiring more than one company to do it, the agency could drive down the cost of routine travel to orbit. A sense of patriotism mattered nearly as much as the price; a spacefaring nation should be capable of dispatching its own explorers.
NASA has always relied on contractors to build the hardware for its crewed missions, from the lunar landers to the space shuttles. But for the first time, the agency wasn’t in charge as it used to be. The systems’ design—each nut and bolt, down to the toilet inside the astronaut capsule—was left up to the two companies.
For NASA, the arrangement felt pleasantly familiar with Boeing, a longtime contractor accustomed to the agency’s rules and, more important, willing to play by them. A feisty start-up such as SpaceX, by contrast, made its own.
Often, the work felt like a trust exercise. In 2013, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule was on its way to deliver supplies to the ISS. The launch had unfolded smoothly, but when the capsule reached orbit, a jammed valve on the spacecraft started causing trouble. As SpaceX engineers in the control room scrambled to troubleshoot the problem, ready to terminate the mission if necessary, senior NASA officials hovered in the background, whispering to one another about potential fixes. Lori Garver, then NASA’s deputy administrator, was among them, hoping they would swoop in and help the SpaceX team before it was too late. “Maybe you should tell that to them!” she said to Bill Gerstenmaier, then NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration. But Gerstenmaier held back. He wanted the SpaceX engineers to find a solution—which they did—and he seemed to trust them to do it. “That’s when I knew NASA was starting to accept this, and it was gonna work,” Garver told me recently.
Bumps persisted when the Commercial Crew program began in earnest. SpaceX offered to allow three NASA employees on site to supervise the development of a crew-friendly version of its Dragon capsule. NASA, Garver said, was thinking that more like 300 staffers would be appropriate. They eventually settled on 30. “NASA has grown up as an agency that, in their first decade, pulled off an achievement that will be one of the greatest of all humankind,” Garver said, referring to the Apollo moon landing. “And it’s been hard for them to accept that they have to justify anything since then.”
Reisman recounted the frustration on SpaceX’s side, and the occasional resistance to NASA’s more conservative process. “There were people that said, ‘Hey, I know you’re frustrated doing things the NASA way,’” he told me. “‘But this is important, and you will do it.’” Over the years, the government agency and the start-up forged their trust, the kind necessary in matters of life and death. The way Garver and Reisman describe it, NASA and SpaceX starred in a buddy comedy whose happy ending hinged on the main characters getting to know each other better and making a few compromises.
Yet NASA and SpaceX have had run-ins as recently as last year. There was the time when Musk smoked weed on a podcast, which prompted NASA to conduct a review of SpaceX’s workplace culture. Or the time Musk made fun of NASA’s own rocket program during a public spat with Jim Bridenstine, the agency’s chief, and then invited Bridenstine to SpaceX headquarters to show the public that they had made up.
“We’ve grown up,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s chief operating officer, told reporters before the launch. “It was a little ‘Wild West’ early on, but, candidly, I think that those beginnings and those roots are critically important to our success, even today, when we’re talking about flying people.”
Shotwell said the technicians put pictures of the NASA astronauts on their work orders, so they never forgot about the mission’s precious cargo.
Today, Hurley and Behnken will suit up in the same room where they got dressed before their shuttle flights. This time, they’ll be surrounded by SpaceX technicians, buzzing around them in protective gear, checking their space suits for leaks and their helmets for crystal-clear communication.
The astronauts have spent countless hours in training and simulations, getting used to a new vehicle that looks and feels unlike anything they’ve ever boarded. Where the space-shuttle interiors were utilitarian and covered in overstuffed control panels with squeezed-together switches—“If you threw the wrong one,” Hurley once told me, “you could make your day a lot worse rather than a lot better”—the inside of Crew Dragon is sleek and minimalist, with a triptych of touch-screen controls. The astronauts did request a few pieces of Velcro on the walls so they can set aside tools without having them float away. “Bob and I are a little bit old-school in that respect,” Hurley said.
When SpaceX drew up this luxurious design, it was thinking beyond a test flight by a couple of astronauts. Although NASA helped fund the project, the agency will not be the Dragon capsule’s only customer. On future flights, SpaceX could launch a mix of astronauts and customers wealthy enough to buy a ride. The company has even agreed to deliver Tom Cruise to the ISS to film a movie. Unlike space shuttles, the Dragon capsule doesn’t need a pilot to dock to the station—it can fly autonomously, from launch to splashdown.
Still, the futuristic aesthetics can belie the simple fact that, even today, spaceflight comes with incredible risks, whether astronauts are bound for the moon or just beyond Earth’s atmosphere. “Do I feel confident that [SpaceX] and NASA have done a good job of minimizing the risk and providing crew safety? Yes,” Wayne Hale, a former space-shuttle program manager and flight director, told me. “But that doesn’t mean it’s safe.”
NASA, under a mandate to beat the Soviets to the moon, returned to spaceflight after a devastating fire killed an Apollo crew, and two shuttle disasters claimed the lives of 14 astronauts. It is difficult to predict how the public might feel about the Commercial Crew program if a mission ends in tragedy. Would Americans lambaste NASA for outsourcing such an important job, for entrusting private businesses with the lives of its astronauts? Could the effort crumble under that criticism?
As the clock ticks down this afternoon, a SpaceX flight director will make the final call, that nerve-racking go for launch. “When it launches, Mission Control is not Houston,” Reisman said. “Mission Control is Hawthorne, California, inside SpaceX headquarters.”
Although SpaceX engineers are at the controls, NASA personnel will be standing over their shoulders, as they have been throughout this years-long effort to get off the ground. The agency has set the rules for keeping the astronauts safe from start to finish, and the buck stops with the NASA administrator, not SpaceX’s CEO. “If we see something that we disagree with, certainly, we have the right to intervene,” Bridenstine told me yesterday. Only if necessary, and he hopes it doesn’t come to that.
For now, the perfect snapshot of this moment is not the sight of a SpaceX rocket standing tall on the pad, or the view of the launch-control room with SpaceX engineers at the consoles, though those are certainly surreal scenes. It will be the sight of two astronauts seated in—what else?—a Tesla Model X, making the short ride from crew quarters to the launchpad, NASA’s unmistakable logo painted on the sides.