Space
3:13 am
Fri May 18, 2012

NASA, SpaceX Aim To Launch Private Era In Orbit

Originally published on Fri May 18, 2012 4:49 pm

A private spaceship owned by a company called SpaceX is scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral in Florida early Saturday morning.

If all goes well, the unmanned capsule will rocket up on a mission to deliver food and other supplies to the International Space Station, becoming the first commercial spacecraft to visit the outpost.

The highly anticipated mission could mark the beginning of what some say could be a new era in spaceflight, with private companies operating taxi services that could start taking people to orbit in just a few years.

SpaceX and NASA have been working hard to make this launch happen — and that has meant navigating the cultural differences between this small, young startup and the huge veteran space agency.

"I feel very strongly that SpaceX would not have been able to get started, nor would we have made the progress that we have, without the help of NASA," says Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002 after making a fortune with the Internet firm PayPal.

Musk says he runs his rocket company like a Silicon Valley tech firm. "That's the operating system that I have in my head of how to run an organization. And that's how I've created SpaceX," says Musk. "NASA is obviously coming from a different heritage."

For five decades, NASA was American spaceflight. Now, the space shuttles are going to museums — Discovery is already in the Smithsonian. And the government wants NASA to focus on deep space exploration, while relying on private space taxis to take cargo and people back and forth to the nearby space station.

NASA has been working with companies to make sure that vision of the future will happen. It has a cargo delivery contract with SpaceX worth $1.6 billion. The space agency has also been handing out plenty of advice.

Musk says so far, their collaboration has worked well: "No relationship is perfect, certainly. But on balance, it's really good."

The relationship involves daily calls and emails between people who live in two different worlds.

For example, the workforce at NASA is generally older. Many top managers cherish their childhood memories of watching the Apollo astronauts on TV.

Not so at SpaceX, where Musk says the average age is around 30. "At age 40, I'm relatively old," says Musk, who notes that he was born after the moon landing.

Like other tech companies, SpaceX tries to have a flat organizational structure, says Musk. The idea is that everyone can talk to everyone else, without having to go through chains of command.

"We really try to minimize any unnecessary paperwork or any bureaucratic elements," says Musk. "I think it's also easier, if you are a smaller organization than if you're a larger organization, to be more nimble."

SpaceX and NASA also have deeper cultural differences. People at NASA feel the weight of the space agency's long history, which includes heartbreaking tragedies.

Wayne Hale, a former space shuttle program manager who recently retired from NASA after working there for more than 30 years, notes that "you go through life and you have experiences and bad things happen, and from those experiences you learn perhaps to be more contemplative when you have to make choices."

For engineers, that contemplation means running more tests and doing more analysis. To a certain extent, that's a good thing, says Hale, but it costs both time and money.

"To build a lower-cost system, you need to perhaps draw the line back and not do so much," says Hale. "And that's what we're seeing with the commercial space people."

Michael Horkachuck, a NASA official who has been managing work with SpaceX, has noticed cultural differences.

"They're a little bit different in that they like to build the hardware and test it, and if it doesn't work and breaks, then they'll build another piece with a little change and test it again, and not do quite as much documentation and detailed analysis as necessarily NASA would typically do," says Horkachuck, who notes that it reminds him a bit of how the Russians approach space technology.

But he says sometimes SpaceX sees the wisdom of NASA's ways.

"SpaceX is learning how we do things and why we do things," says Horkachuck, "and I think they are pulling some of the best ideas and methods that NASA has had and applying those to their program."

One thing that makes this give-and-take go a bit more smoothly is the fact that a fair number of the approximately 1,700 people working for SpaceX used to be employed by NASA — Musk estimates that's true of about 10 to 15 percent.

Jon Cowart, a NASA manager assigned to partner with SpaceX as it develops a vehicle that can carry astronauts, says having former NASA colleagues at meetings can really help when agency officials and SpaceX are trying to relate to each other.

"It makes it a lot easier to find that common ground as we struggle to find the right answer on a way they plan do to something that we may or may not be comfortable with," Cowart says.

Despite their differences, NASA and SpaceX share a set of core convictions. They both have an almost religious belief in the need for humans to venture forth into space, a geeky love for rockets, technical know-how — plus, they both need each other to succeed.

Some people even say SpaceX reminds them of NASA, back in the good old days.

"I would characterize them as almost being like back during Mercury, and Gemini and Apollo," says Cowart. "That kind of youthful, you know, young enthusiasm that you have when you're first starting something."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Tomorrow a private spaceship is scheduled to take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The unmanned capsule is supposed to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. It'll be the first commercial spacecraft to visit that station. And in just a few years, the start-up company behind the craft is hoping to carry astronauts.

This company is called SpaceX. It wants to make space flight cheaper so that someday people could live on other planets. And its corporate culture is very different than you'd find at NASA. So this small private company and the veteran space agency have had to learn how to get along. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: SpaceX recently had a kind of rehearsal for the upcoming launch of its cargo-carrying capsule, which is called Dragon.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dragon configured for solar array charging.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Controllers in Florida sat in front of computer screens. Their chatter sounded a lot like you'd hear from NASA's mission control.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Dragon telemetry and video to Cape assets look good.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Power global.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: MD, we're still go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Copy that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But people wore T-shirts. One guy was wearing a jersey for the company's softball team. It was a far cry from NASA's buttoned-down dress shirts and ties.

SpaceX was founded 10 years ago by Elon Musk, a wealthy Internet entrepreneur who made his fortune with the company PayPal. And he runs his rocket company like a Silicon Valley tech firm.

ELON MUSK: That's the operating system that I have in my head of how to run an organization. And that's how I've created SpaceX. NASA is obviously coming from a different heritage.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: For five decades, NASA was American spaceflight. Now the space shuttles are going to museums. And the government plans to rely on private space taxis to go back and forth to the space station. NASA has been working with companies to make sure that vision of the future will happen. It has a cargo delivery contract with SpaceX worth $1.6 billion. And the space agency has also been handing out plenty of advice.

MUSK: I feel very strongly that SpaceX would not have been able to get started nor would we have made the progress that we have without the help of NASA.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Musk says so far their collaboration has worked.

MUSK: No relationship is perfect, certainly, but on balance it's really good.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The relationship involves daily calls and emails between people who live in two very different worlds. At NASA, the average age is almost 50. Many top managers cherish their childhood memories of watching the Apollo astronauts on TV. Not so at SpaceX, where Musk says the average age is around 30.

MUSK: At age 40, I'm relatively old.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says like other tech companies, SpaceX tries to have a flat organizational structure so everyone can talk to everyone else without having to go through chains of command.

MUSK: We really try to minimize any unnecessary paperwork or any bureaucratic elements. And I think it's also easier if you're a smaller organization than if you're a larger organization to be more nimble.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: SpaceX and NASA also have deeper cultural differences. People at NASA feel the weight of the space agency's long history, which includes heartbreaking tragedies. Wayne Hale worked at NASA for more than 30 years. He was head of the shuttle program after the Columbia disaster.

WAYNE HALE: One of the things that happens is you go through life and you have experiences and bad things happen, and from those experiences you learn perhaps to be more contemplative when you have to make choices.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: For engineers, that means running more tests and more analysis. Hale says to a certain extent that's a good thing, but it costs both time and money.

HALE: And to build a lower cost system, you need to perhaps draw the line back and not do so much. And that's what we're seeing with the commercial space people.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One of the NASA guys helping SpaceX figure out where to draw that line is Michael Horkachuck. He's a NASA official who's been managing work with SpaceX.

MICHAEL HORKACHUCK: They're a little bit different in that they like to build the hardware and test it. And if it doesn't work and breaks, then they'll build another piece with a little change and test it again and not do quite as much documentation and detailed analysis as necessarily NASA would typically do.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But he says sometimes SpaceX sees the wisdom of NASA's ways.

HORKACHUCK: SpaceX is learning how we do things and why we do things. And I think they're pulling some of the best ideas and methods that NASA has had and applying those to their program.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One thing that makes this give-and-take go a bit more smoothly is the fact that around 10 percent of SpaceX employees used to work for NASA. Jon Cowart is a NASA manager assigned to partner with SpaceX as it develops a vehicle that can carry astronauts. He says having former NASA colleagues at meetings can really help when agency officials and SpaceX are trying to relate to each other.

JON COWART: And it makes it a lot easier to find that common ground as we struggle to find the right answer on a way they plan do to something that we may or may not be comfortable with.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And here's another thing that makes it easier. At rock bottom, NASA and SpaceX share a set of core convictions. They both have an almost religious belief in the need for humans to venture forth into space, a geeky love for rockets and technical know-how - plus, they both need each other to succeed. Some people, including Cowart, say SpaceX reminds them of NASA, back in the good old days.

COWART: SpaceX is a young - I would characterize them as almost being like back during Mercury and Gemini and Apollo. That kind of youthful, young enthusiasm that you have when you're first starting something.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The company's first mission to the space station is scheduled to blast off at 4:55 AM tomorrow. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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