As it prepares to fly humans, Elon Musk's SpaceX faces its biggest challenge
By CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT | The Washington Post | Published: May 16, 2020
The company was never supposed to succeed. Even its founder gave it odds few gamblers would take — 1 in 10.
But Elon Musk decided to go all in anyway, investing some $100 million of his own money, over the protests of his friends, family and the basic logic that said a private entrepreneur with no experience in spaceflight shouldn't start a rocket company.
The result — Space Exploration Technologies — has become one of the most improbable stories in the history of American enterprise, a combination of disruption, failure and triumph that has transformed it from a spunky start-up to an industry powerhouse with some 7,000 employees.
Now, SpaceX, as it's commonly known, faces the most significant test since it was founded in 2002. On May 27, the California-based company is scheduled to launch two veteran NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, to the International Space Station from the same launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center that hoisted the crew of Apollo 11 to the moon.
If all goes according to plan, the mission would herald a monumental moment in human space exploration: the first launch by a private company of people into orbit. The two astronauts will be lifted to the space station by a booster and spacecraft owned and operated by SpaceX, marking the end of the era where only government-owned spacecraft achieved such heights and adding another major step in the privatization of space. It also would become a victory for SpaceX over rival Boeing, the other company working to fly NASA's astronauts to the space station, which has stumbled badly along the way.
If, however, SpaceX's mission fails, it would be a tragic setback that would derail NASA's plan to restore human spaceflight from American soil and fuel criticism that the space agency never should have outsourced such a sacred mission to the private sector.
The flight — the first of NASA astronauts from the United States since the space shuttle was retired nearly a decade ago — is the culmination of years of work by SpaceX and NASA to end America's reliance on Russia to fly astronauts to the space station. Without a way to get astronauts to orbit, NASA has had to rely on the Russians to get to space — a fact that has embarrassed the agency but could soon come to an end if SpaceX is successful.
To get to this point, SpaceX and NASA have formed an odd-couple pairing of a 62-year-old government bureaucracy and a scrappy company still in its teens that has embraced failure as a learning tool. It has, at times, been a strained relationship — especially since SpaceX has had two of its Falcon 9 rockets blow up, one during a mission in 2015 to take cargo to the space station, another a year later while it was fueling on the launchpad ahead of an engine test to launch a commercial satellite.
Then, last year, the same Dragon spacecraft that would fly astronauts to the station exploded during a test of its abort engines.
But now, as they prepare to launch astronauts together for the first time, both NASA and SpaceX say the past failures have been investigated and remedied. Last year, SpaceX successfully completed a test mission of its Dragon spacecraft without crews to the space station. Earlier this year, it performed what NASA said was a flawless test of the abort system in flight that would carry astronauts to safety in the event of an emergency — a feature the space shuttle did not have.
Both SpaceX and NASA say that after years of hard work and testing, they are nearly ready to fly. The teams are proceeding with a "launch readiness review" on Thursday, an indication they feel confident with the date, though any number of problems — bad weather, last-minute mechanical glitches — could delay the launch.
SpaceX and NASA "are diligently working on getting the vehicles ready," Kathy Lueders, the manager for NASA's commercial crew program, said during a recent news conference. She said the teams were "going through all the reviews and making sure that we are ready for this important mission to safely fly. ... This is a humbling job. I think we're up to it."
Even under ideal circumstances, launching astronauts is a dangerous and risky endeavor, but SpaceX and NASA now are doing it during the coronavirus pandemic, adding another degree of difficulty to a mission with no room for error. At least half of SpaceX's engineers are working from home, said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's president and chief operating officer. Those that do come to the factory are keeping their distance, she said. And NASA officials have urged all but essential personnel to stay home for the mission.
For a rocket launch to go off successfully, "a million things have to go right," Shotwell likes to say. "And only one thing has to go wrong to have a particularly bad day."
Everyone at SpaceX knows the stakes, she said during the recent news conference.
"As far as my team goes, they don't need to be reminded about the criticality of the work that every person is doing for this mission," she said.
As for herself, she held her hand up just under her chin and said: "My heart is sitting right here. And I think it's going to stay there until we get Bob and Doug back safely."
A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable that NASA, chastened by the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters that led to the deaths of 14 crew members, would entrust the lives of its astronauts to a private space company, especially one as green as SpaceX.
The company nearly died in infancy, after three consecutive launches that failed to reach orbit drained Musk's bank account and put the company on a path to bankruptcy. It emerged triumphant after its fourth launch successfully delivered a dummy satellite to orbit in 2008 and was rescued by NASA, which awarded it a $1.6 billion contract to fly cargo and supplies to the space station a few months later. Musk, overcome, changed a log-in password to "ilovenasa."
Then Musk took on Boeing and Lockheed Martin's decade-long monopoly on Pentagon launch contracts. It sued the Air Force — the very customer it was trying to court — and eventually reached a settlement that allowed it to compete for launches worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
It eventually succeeded in its quest to build reusable rockets, long considered the holy grail of spaceflight that in many ways illustrates the company's struggle — a near-impossible goal, a string of failures and then an improbable success.
SpaceX also benefited from good timing.
In 2010, President Barack Obama canceled the Constellation program, NASA's plan to build a new fleet of rockets and spacecraft to fly astronauts to the space station and beyond. The program was way over budget and years behind schedule. The space shuttle program was near its end. And so NASA looked to the private sector to fly its astronauts — a decision that many found premature at best, reckless at worst.
"One day it will be like commercial airline travel, just not yet," former NASA administrator Mike Griffin said at the time. "It's like 1920. Lindbergh hasn't flown the Atlantic, and they're trying to sell 747s to Pan Am."
Former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman went to work at SpaceX in the midst of that turmoil and found the perceptions of the company to be way off.
"There was a popular perception that these were a bunch of people who didn't really know what they were doing," he recalled in a recent interview. "It wasn't just a bunch of surfer dudes in a garage living in their parents' basement and building rockets. It was a real impressive, large-scale operation."
Since its founding, SpaceX has helped spark a renewed interest in space, and has led a growing commercial space industry that includes Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
In late 2018, Virgin Galactic sent a pair of test pilots to an altitude of just over 50 miles, past where the Federal Aviation Administration says space begins. It was a straight up-and-down trip that didn't reach orbit, but it was the first human space launch from U.S. soil since the end of the shuttle era.
Having developed a company that hopes to routinely fly tourists to space and back, Branson knows how difficult such a venture is. To get to this point, Virgin Galactic had to overcome a failure during a test flight of its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft in 2014 that killed one of the pilots.
"I have a huge amount of respect for what Elon and the SpaceX team have achieved in such a short period of time," he said in a recent statement to The Post. "My respect is magnified because I know something of the enormous challenges involved in reinventing human spaceflight for the 21st century, but also the unparalleled satisfaction that comes with each successful milestone. While the setbacks are plentiful and painful, the breakthroughs are already transforming our relationship with the cosmos."
Mark Cuban, one of the hosts of "Shark Tank," the reality television show where startup companies pitch a panel of investors, said in an email to The Post that he gives Musk "a ton of credit. It's easy to dream. It's hard to do. He did both."
The relationship with NASA has, at times, been strained. In 2018, senior leaders at NASA were incensed when Musk took a hit of marijuana on a show streamed on the Internet, and ordered a safety review of the company. Boeing was also supposed to be subject to a similar review, but initially got a pass. (After the company's first flight of its Starliner spacecraft without crews went awry late last year, NASA said it would, in fact, conduct a full probe of the company's safety culture.)
Last October, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma who was appointed to his job by President Trump in 2017, also was upset at Musk for focusing too much on his next-generation Starship spacecraft as it was preparing to fly NASA astronauts. Bridenstine chastised him on Twitter, writing that NASA "expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer. It's time to deliver."
Afterward, Musk gave Bridenstine a tour of SpaceX's headquarters and allayed his concerns. "I think probably a couple of weeks ago we were not on the same page," Bridenstine said at the time. "But now we are, 100 percent."
SpaceX has always ruffled feathers, especially among traditionalists in the industry, who derided its public failures as signs that it was reckless. SpaceX, however, sees them as growing pains to be overcome.
"If there's a test program and nothing happens in that test program, I would say it's insufficiently rigorous," Musk said last year. "If there hasn't been hardware that's blown up on a test stand, I don't think you've tested it hard enough. You've got to push the envelope."
One of Musk's goals was to alter the economics of spaceflight by changing the way rockets operated. Traditionally, the first stages, or boosters, were ditched into the ocean after liftoff, never to be used again. That, Musk thought, was a waste that made spaceflight prohibitively expensive. How could an industry be sustainable if it kept throwing away the most expensive part of the rocket after a single use?
So he started trying to fly his boosters back to Earth. The effort prompted SpaceX to invent entirely new rocket components and hardware — expanding not just technical capabilities but adding to the vocabulary of space as well.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets were outfitted with "grid fins," heat-resistant wings that helped steer the 230-foot-tall booster through the atmosphere. It had a quartet of landing legs that would unfurl just before touching down on an autonomous platform, 300 feet long by 170 feet wide, that the company called a "droneship."
And when the rockets crashed, Musk dubbed the fireballs not explosions but "rapid unscheduled disassemblies."
At first, there were a fair number of them, a parade of fireballs, one after the other.
In 2014, a rocket hovered over the ocean, then tipped over and scattered debris across the water's surface. In early 2015, one slammed into the droneship — "close but no cigar" Musk tweeted at the time. A few months later, another crashed and burned.
The company eventually released a blooper reel of its rockets blowing up, with a caption for one crash that read, "Well, technically, it did land ... just not in one piece."
To some in the space industry, the embrace of failure was refreshing. When NASA veterans visited Reisman at SpaceX, he said they'd tell him "this place reminds me a lot of what NASA was like during Apollo. So it was kind of like it was almost like taking NASA back to its roots."
Then, in December 2015, another Falcon 9 landed just as an ominous thunder cascaded over Cape Canaveral.
Another explosion, Musk thought.
But this time, when the smoke cleared, there was no fire. Just a rocket standing triumphantly on a landing pad on the Cape. The sound Musk heard was a sonic boom, not a detonation.
"You have to learn those hard lessons," Shotwell said. "I think sometimes the aerospace industry shies away from failure in the development phase. It looks bad politically. It's tough. And the media certainly makes a lot of failures. But, candidly, that's the best way to learn — to push your systems to their limit, which includes your people systems and your processes, and learn where you're weak and make things better."
A mock-up of the SpaceX Dragon capsule for crew members is seen in 2018. Four years earlier, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. The first such SpaceX flight is set for later this month.
JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST