The marriage of SpaceX and NASA was not easy, but it was successful.



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On Saturday morning, SpaceX will attempt to launch its Crew Dragon spacecraft for the first time, marking the last stage of a relationship between NASA and the Californian rocket company, which has lasted 13 years. This relationship has been fruitful for both.

For SpaceX, NASA funding helped the company accelerate the development of its world-class Falcon 9 rocket from a single-engine propeller. Perhaps more importantly, the sustained funding of the cargo missions at the station (16 flights have been made to date) has provided the operational flexibility needed to continue to improve the Falcon 9 rocket, to practice the ask and make the reusable rocket a reality. Now that crew missions are approaching, SpaceX may soon become the first private company to launch humans into orbit.

NASA, in turn, did a good job. SpaceX has always offered the space agency cheaper services than those of competition and for experiments on cargoes, crews and scientific experiments much less expensive than what NASA would have cost to develop these capabilities autonomously .

"If we do this at NASA, we would do it in the old-fashioned way, based on our pedigree and other activities," said Bill Gerstenmaier, the agency's manned space flight manager recently. space, about the commercial crew program. . "In this way, they push us and force us to look at things in a new way, and I think it's really cool."

Culture shock

It has not always been easy. NASA is a big bureaucratic organization, used to doing things in its own way. They have the money and legacy of spaceflight and can therefore tell entrepreneurs how to do it. SpaceX, on the contrary, fits into a more modern mentality of Silicon Valley, less related to tradition and old experience. The safest way to attract the attention of the founder, Elon Musk, is to answer one of his questions by saying, "Because that's how things got. always been done ".

Here is an example of different cultures. Legendary NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz titled his thesis Failure is not an option, referring to his days in Mission Control Mercury missions through the Apollo program. This state of mind has helped Kranz and Johnson Space Center's engineering teams to heroically bring back the Apollo 13 crew to safety. The phrase "failure is not an option" has become the cornerstone of the agency's identity. Yet even before his first contract with NASA, Musk had clearly disregarded this philosophy in a 2005 FastCompany article: "There is a silly idea that failure is not an option at NASA ", did he declare. "Failure is an option here.If things do not fail, you do not innovate enough."

And yet, cultures have come together to a certain extent, since NASA and SpaceX have worked with commercial teams. In this case, the failure is really not an option, because the main goal of NASA is to allow its astronauts to go back and forth from the International Space Station safely.

"We are doing very risky things," said Gerstenmaier. "The design and complexity of what we need to do, tethering humans to rockets with millions of pounds of thrust, and launching them into orbit to connect to a space station is not trivial. all to solve the C is the same pleasure of working with a new partner who approaches the problem in a slightly different way.They do not have the same backgrounds as us, we do not approach not the design of the way we did it. "

Bill Gerstenmaier of NASA in 1978 (left). He worked on the Space Shuttle and Space Station programs before he even flew. He says NASA's new way of developing a human-rated spacecraft is a good thing.
Enlarge / Bill Gerstenmaier of NASA in 1978 (left). He worked on the Space Shuttle and Space Station programs before he even flew. He says NASA's new way of developing a human-rated spacecraft is a good thing.

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One of the things NASA has been able to do for SpaceX is to bring some of its operational experience – and the focus on security – to the process of developing a commercial spaceship in which humans could fly. .

"They keep us honest," said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of SpaceX for the reliability of construction and flight systems, during a press conference preceding the launch of the Crew Dragon vehicle on Saturday morning. "We have, I mean, sometimes constructive conflicts and discussions about how to do things right." In the end, however, he believes that the result is the safest capsule possible.

Two NASA astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, will make the first crewed Dragon flight later this year or early in 2020. They have been at the forefront of the spear, representing NASA during almost weekly trips to headquarters from SpaceX in Hawthorne, California. . In an interview, Hurley admitted that there had been problems.

"Are there growing pains?" "Of course, are there cultural differences?", He said. "But it's amazing to see that the two organizations, in one sense, may not change, but adapt to each other, and the sum of the parts ends up being very fruitful."

A good deal

Originally funded in 2010, the commercial crew program was based on NASA's private cargo delivery service to the International Space Station. With the imminent retirement of the space shuttle, the Obama White House has sought to extend this public-private partnership approach to people. "We wanted to harness the best of both worlds, the legacy and know-how of NASA, and connect them to the energies of American entrepreneurs," said Phil Larson, then head of the White House, who helped to guide the development of the program.

NASA's cargo and crew programs differed from NASA's traditional development programs in a critical way. Instead of a top-down approach, in which NASA defined the requirements and told contractors precisely what to build, the sales team was more of a partnership. NASA explained to SpaceX and its competitor Boeing that the company wanted to send its crews safely in space, before letting the companies handle the details. NASA is under surveillance, of course, and has been deeply involved from day one, but these projects have been led by the companies.

This approach has given companies more flexibility in their design. SpaceX and Boeing have invested their own capital in their spaceship. They could also consider marketing the use of their vehicles to private customers. As a result, NASA saved money. This flat-rate contractual approach, unlike the old cost-plus paradigm, has allowed NASA and the US to save billions of dollars.

If this new method of financing exploration programs works (and we will not really know it until the first humans begin to launch and land safely), NASA and Washington DC decision-makers will be more encouraged to enable private companies to come up with innovative ideas. and cost-cutting approaches for the government as NASA expands its operations to the solar system.

It's probably a good thing. Hurley, one of NASA's astronauts who planned to fly on Crew Dragon, said he saw a lot of the old agency on his travels to Hawthorne – the skinny, hungry NASA of the 1960s.

"In a way, SpaceX would probably be similar to NASA in the 1960s, as we were preparing to go to the moon," he said. NASA was then much younger, with an active population in their twenties. The average SpaceX employee is 29 years old and, just like NASA in the 1960s, he has to run his own race to space.

Announcement image by Joel Kowsky / NASA

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