As it pre­pares to fly hu­mans, SpaceX faces the big­gest chal­lenge in its his­tory

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHRISTIAN DAVEN­PORT

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 gov­ern­men­towned 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 odd­cou­ple 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 decade­long 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-and­down 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 start-up 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 nextgen­er­a­tion 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.”


In 2014, NASA awarded con­tracts to SpaceX and Boe­ing to ferry as­tro­nauts to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion. The first such flight is set for May 27. Above: SpaceX’s Dragon cap­sule in Jan­uary.

A SpaceX Fal­con 9 rocket launches from Kennedy Space Cen­ter for a re­sup­ply mis­sion to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion in 2018. For years, the United States has had to rely on Rus­sia to trans­port its as­tro­nauts to space — a sit­u­a­tion that has em­bar­rassed the agency but could soon come to an end if SpaceX is suc­cess­ful.


A mock-up of SpaceX’s Dragon cap­sule is dis­played in Hawthorne, Calif. NASA’s space shut­tle was re­tired nearly a decade ago, and since Elon Musk founded it in 2002, SpaceX has led a grow­ing com­mer­cial space in­dus­try that in­cludes Blue Ori­gin and Vir­gin Galactic.

Bob Behnken, stand­ing, puts on his space­suit at Kennedy Space Cen­ter in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 2018. If the launch set for May 27 is suc­cess­ful, he and fel­low as­tro­naut Doug Hur­ley will be the first peo­ple launched into or­bit by a pri­vate com­pany.

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