The astronauts returned safely home last weekend, and once again, NASA and SpaceX employees cheered together, celebrating their coordinated accomplishment.
That moment of solidarity, however, came after years of infighting, politicking and mutual distrust, according to current and former employees from NASA and SpaceX.
The space agency, wise from past tragedies that cost astronauts’ lives, saw SpaceX as brash and reckless.
The prevailing perception was “they’re cowboys; they’re dangerous; they’re going to kill somebody,” said former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, a veteran of two Space Shuttle missions who joined SpaceX in 2011 as a senior engineer, working on Crew Dragon development.
Even after SpaceX began to prove its engineering chops and was awarded multibillion-dollar NASA contracts, cultural divisions kept tensions brewing behind the scenes.
“To see NASA step up and say, ‘We should have trusted SpaceX more’ — If you would have played that clip about eight years ago, I would have been flabbergasted,” Reisman said. “It would have been pure science fiction.”
‘Wacky people doing wacky things’
The space agency, however, also needed to keep the International Space Station, a $100 billion orbiting laboratory, stocked with supplies. And a small faction of NASA employees had a radical idea: Instead of doing the bulk of the work, perhaps NASA could ask private-sector companies to develop new spacecraft and compete for NASA contracts. If the spacecraft proved capable of delivering cargo to the Space Station, then perhaps they could also ask companies to build crew-worthy capsules.
When SpaceX was selected as a COTS program competitor in 2006, it was a four-year-old company with fewer than 100 employees, mostly young engineers, that were trying to launch cheap rockets off the tiny island of Omelek, about 2,300 miles west of Hawaii. They had already blown up one. A common perception at the time was that space technology was probably too complex and expensive for the private sector, and SpaceX’s eccentric CEO, Elon Musk, could join a long list of rich guys who blew their fortune on the impossible.
But the COTS program marked an entirely new blueprint. NASA lent expertise and oversight, but companies were awarded fixed-price contracts. If costs ran high, the contractors would have to find more money elsewhere or work around the problem.
“The first flight could serve as these big system tests,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell told NASA’s Oral History Project in 2013. “The biggest challenge, I think, that we had in the execution of this was convincing NASA, every step of the way, that though we’re going to do business very differently, we’re going to get it right.”
Shotwell said SpaceX engineers also used C++, a modern computer programming language adored in Silicon Valley, while NASA was used to working with its own aerospace-specific languages, such as HAL/S. The two sides became accustomed to long, “painful” meetings to reach understandings, Shotwell said.
NASA preferred slow, methodical approaches and detailed documentation to organize the process. SpaceX’s strategy was to move fast and continuously make changes.
But not everyone at NASA was put off.
“They were making things in a month that would have taken NASA like a year,” Reisman, the former NASA astronaut, told CNN. He watched the company’s progress while preparing for his second Space Shuttle mission. “We were just amazed.”
After Reisman returned from his mission, STS-132, he left NASA to join the startup.
A year later, in 2012, the first SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicle safely latched onto the International Space Station after launching atop its new Falcon 9 rocket.
SpaceX became impossible to ignore. And the success of the Dragon spacecraft, which still flies routine cargo missions to the ISS, enabled a pro-commercialization movement inside NASA to push forward with a plan to allow SpaceX and other private companies to take over astronaut transportation, too.
Failure and politics
That idea, however, did not sit well with the space industry establishment or some of NASA’s bankrollers on Capitol Hill.
Republicans also wanted to revive the Bush Administration’s Moon landing program and the massive rocket and spacecraft NASA planned to develop for the mission, so eventually a compromise was reached: The Moon program was revived, and Congress agreed to fund the Commercial Crew Program.
Many NASA engineers grew to respect the company and its unorthodox process.
“I like to credit a bunch of people along the way that really kind of stuck their neck out,” Reisman, the NASA-astronaut-turned-SpaceX-engineer, told CNN Business. (Reisman is currently a professor at the University of Southern California and works as a SpaceX consultant.)
‘It’s time to deliver’
But behind the scenes, NASA and SpaceX engineers were already finishing Crew Dragon’s design fixes and preparing to give the spacecraft its final “go for launch.”
That approval rested in large part on Kathy Leuders, NASA’s Commercial Crew program head.
In May, days before SpaceX launched its historic crewed mission, she reflected on the evolution of Boeing, the trusted NASA partner that was then undergoing lengthy reviews of its botched test flight, and SpaceX, the underdog that some thought would never get the job done.
“I tell people that there’ll be Harvard Business studies [about these companies],” Leuders, who has business administration and engineering degrees, told CNN. “I think the program was really a catalyst for maturity for both companies.”
Boeing had to learn to work within an aerospace program that didn’t send more money when accounts ran dry. And SpaceX had to grow out of its “Skunkworks” phase, Leuders said, a reference to Lockheed Martin’s internal experimental prototype division.
From SpaceX’s point of view, “the worst thing to be would be to be a major aerospace company,” Leuders said. “They want to be on the leading edge and, sometimes, that’s tough when you’re dealing with government customers.”