SpaceX may be everyone’s favorite rocket-powered company, but the Elon Musk company founded 20 years ago – and the whole concept of paying private startups to send American astronauts into space – was a lot less popular in Washington when the Obama administration first floated the idea.
“NASA was reluctant to hand this over to the private sector,” Lori Garver(Opens in a new window)deputy administrator of the space agency from 2009 to 2013, said at a conference Thursday in Borders of Ars(Opens in a new window)a conference hosted by the technology news site Ars Technica.
During his tenure, NASA and Congress had agreed to NASA paying private companies to transport cargo to the International Space Station. But outsourcing crew transport was different, said Garver, author of the forthcoming book Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Age of Space(Opens in a new window).
“It wasn’t popular,” she told Eric Berger, who covers spaceflight in Ars and wrote on a book(Opens in a new window) which gives a good look at SpaceX’s backstory. One of the reasons for this dissatisfaction was NASA’s ambition to look beyond the traditional, trusted aerospace contractors who had done so well with its traditional “cost plus” procurement.
“Companies get paid no matter when they deliver, and they can always add more,” Garver said. “Usually these programs double in cost and schedule.”
Example: Constellation, NASA’s attempt to develop a spacecraft successor to the Space Shuttle. The year before the shuttle’s final launch in May 2011, with Constellation already grotesquely behind schedule and over budget, the Obama administration decided to cancel the program and offer private companies to ferry astronauts to the ISS.
“Congress was furious,” Garver said.
Congress, however, got less riled up after one of those traditional aerospace contractors, Boeing, Won(Opens in a new window) one of the first commercial crew contracts. “Boeing’s entry into the commercial crew program meant you had a lot more support in Congress, because they happen to have a very strong lobbying program,” she said.
But NASA still had to prevent Congress from force(Opens in a new window) it awarded just one crew contract to that one company, while the agency paid ever-increasing prices for Russia to fly astronauts to and from the ISS on its spacecraft Soyuz.
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“We never wanted to select just one vendor,” she told Berger. “If we had to select a supplier, I guarantee it would be Boeing.”
In 2014, Boeing and SpaceX everyone won(Opens in a new window) a crew transport contract. But while SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft returned human spaceflight to US soil in May 2020 and has since ferried four more NASA crew to the ISS — plus two private missions — Boeing has yet to bring its Starliner capsule at the station.
Instead, after a failed test mission and several delays since, an uncrewed Starliner flight to the ISS is now launch scheduled for May 19(Opens in a new window).
Berger asked Garver if it’s okay to leave so much US spaceflight to starry-eyed billionaires like Musk and Jeff Bezos, whose company Blue Origin represents SpaceX’s most ambitious competitor. Garver nodded to the alternative we would have been stuck with had the story taken a different turn. “It’s a risky thing,” she said. “But it was less risky than just going with the Russians.”
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