In the summer of 2012, I interviewed SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. The company’s headquarters were, and still are, in an enormous white building (once used to build 747 aircraft) in Hawthorne, California, with a tantalizing address: 1 Rocket Road.
Inside I saw an automated machine spinning strands of carbon fiber around a cylinder the size of a farm silo—a rocket body! I clambered into an early version of the company’s Dragon space capsule. Even though the craft was initially used only for cargo—“human-rating” certification was years away—SpaceX engineers made sure it included a window. They had big plans.
“The dream of human space travel has almost died for a lot of people,” Musk told me that day. “SpaceX is part of restoring that dream.” At the time, that prediction might have struck many as typical Musk grandiosity. He was a Silicon Valley upstart with no background in aerospace. Though SpaceX had found its footing after several early launch failures, it was still a brash newcomer in the industry. Meanwhile, NASA, and the companies it relied on to build its hardware—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and others—were world leaders in spacecraft design.
Or at least they had been. In reality, the NASA-Industrial Complex was starting to resemble a mastodon in a tar pit—a giant mired in the past. The glories of the Apollo era were a fading memory. The International Space Station (ISS), built with partners including Russia, was impressive. But a foothold in low earth orbit was hardly the sort of deep-space exploration envisioned in movies like 2001. Even the space shuttle had been grounded, having flown its last mission just a year before. That beautiful, beleaguered craft reflected both the best and worst of NASA: It was a daring engineering concept that turned out to be a gold-plated death trap. In the end, the shuttle program wound up costing 14 lives, and nearly $1.6 billion per launch.
Despite having decades to plan for the shuttle’s retirement, NASA didn’t have a replacement ready. Billions were being spent on a program described as “Apollo on steroids,” but it never seemed to get any closer to the launch pad. “NASA ran like a traditional big-government program,” aerospace author Joe Pappalardo, author of Spaceport Earth (and a longtime colleague of mine), recalls. “There was no urgency, no destination, no focus.” In a final humiliation, the U.S. had to pay the Russian space agency $50 million per seat to ferry our astronauts to the ISS on its Soyuz rockets. America had lost the ability to launch humans into space.
Fortunately, NASA had a Plan B. In 2006, the agency had quietly begun a program informally known as Commercial Cargo. The idea was simple. NASA needed a cheaper way to deliver supplies to the Space Station. The agency was already developing a suitable rocket called Ares 1. But the project was crawling along under NASA’s traditional approach, in which it hires aerospace contractors to build hardware under contracts that obligate NASA to cover cost overruns. That encourages delays and runaway spending. The Commercial Cargo program took a different approach: NASA offered to pay private companies a fixed fee to deliver cargo on rockets that those businesses would build and fly themselves.
SpaceX was one of the first companies to sign up, and NASA kicked in some seed money. After rigorous tests to make sure its Dragon capsule met NASA’s safety standards, SpaceX delivered its first payload to the ISS in 2012. At the same time, the company was doing a blistering business launching satellites for various paying customers. That nonstop launch schedule has allowed the company to innovate at a pace not seen since NASA’s 1960s heyday. In one of its biggest innovations, SpaceX nailed the ability to fly used rocket stages safely back to earth, instead of watching them fall uselessly—and expensively—back into the ocean. Then they can be cleaned up, refueled, and launched again.
The cost savings have been staggering. NASA eventually paid SpaceX nearly $400 million under the Commercial Cargo program. Much of that money went into the development of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. At the same time, NASA was still working on its own Ares 1 project—which would have cost about $20 billion had it been completed. So, as Ars Technica space editor Eric Berger notes, compared with the SpaceX Falcon 9, NASA’s rocket design “would have cost 50 times as much to develop.” Never underestimate the power of a little market competition.
In 2011, NASA expanded the commercial program to include flying humans as well as cargo. A host of companies vied for the Commercial Crew business, including start-ups Sierra Nevada and the Jeff Bezos–backed Blue Origin as well as Boeing. NASA eventually awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop crewed space vehicles. Boeing’s Starliner capsule has encountered some setbacks but is expected to fly next year. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has already made history.
On May 31, 2020, astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley opened the hatch of their Crew Dragon capsule and floated into the International Space Station. It marked the first time astronauts had launched from U.S. soil in nearly a decade and the first time anyone had reached orbit in a privately owned spacecraft. Musk’s bold prediction came true. NASA now seeks private partners for a range of missions, including eventually flying cargo, and even humans, to the moon. “What began as a pebble tossed into a pond has become a wave,” Berger writes.
It’s not all smooth flying. NASA’s commercial partnerships have faced plenty of pushback, especially from Congress. The fact that Commercial Crew saves taxpayer dollars isn’t a plus for many lawmakers. It means less bacon for their districts. So, while NASA has been able to trim parts of the “Apollo on steroids” boondoggle (including the superfluous Ares 1 rocket), it is still developing a massive rocket and deep-space capsule many observers believe will never fly. The cost to taxpayers: $50 billion and counting.
Thankfully, successive presidential administrations have backed NASA’s market-oriented innovators. President Obama’s support ensured that Congress could delay, but not crush, the Commercial Crew program. The Trump administration has deepened the U.S. commitment to private space, as well as expanding our off-planet military presence with the new Space Force. Whether a new branch of the military is the best way to protect our interests in space is a topic for another day. But there’s no question that China sees the heavens as a realm for potential domination. We need to be prepared.
Meanwhile, the seeds planted by a few visionary NASA leaders and daring space entrepreneurs continue to bear fruit. “Low earth orbit is open for business,” Pappalardo says. Private companies are launching satellites by the thousands, while genuine “spaceports” are opening around the country. At its Boca Chica launch facility in Texas, SpaceX is testing its huge Starship rocket, which Musk hopes will carry people to Mars one day. “When you go to Boca Chica,” Pappalardo says, “it’s like you’ve opened up a 1950s science-fiction paperback and you’re living in it.”
As I was finishing this column, I clicked on Twitter and happened on a live feed from SpaceX. They were launching a new Space Force GPS satellite atop their workhorse Falcon 9. I remembered my childhood, when we would assemble in the school gym to watch Gemini and Apollo launches. Today, space launches are so routine, they don’t even make the evening news. The launch was flawless. The satellite sailed into orbit and the Falcon’s first stage took a controlled plunge back to earth where it made a fiery, pinpoint landing on a waiting barge. Science fiction indeed.
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