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, investing about $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 startup to an industry powerhouse with 7,000 employees.
SpaceX, as it’s commonly known, now faces the most significant test since it was founded in 2002. On May 27, the California-based company plans to launch two veteran NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, to the International Space Station from the Kennedy Space Center.
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 Boeing, the other company working to fly NASA’s astronauts to the space station.
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 been a strained relationship – especially since SpaceX 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, NASA and SpaceX insist 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 said 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,” said Kathy Lueders, manager for NASA’s commercial crew program. 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. 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.
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 at a 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.
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.
Musk then took on Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s 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, then-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 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.
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 said 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.
In 2018, Virgin Galactic sent a pair of test pilots to an altitude of just over 50 miles, past where the Federal Aviation Administration said 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.
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.”
Shotwell said: “You have to learn those hard lessons. 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.”