Elon Musk and Jim Bridenstine are the odd couple behind NASA’s big plans

Space bros?
Space bros?
Image: AP Photo/John Raoux
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How better to understand the public-private partnerships that will carry US astronauts into space than during a 4am episode of the Odd Couple?

That’s what you could call the bleary-eyed press conference held by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in the wee hours of March 2 after the latter’s rocket launched a brand-new spacecraft designed to carry the former’s astronauts into space.

More than an hour past the 2:49am launch on March 2, the mood was set when a NASA public affairs official warned that there would only be “one reporter per question.”

Most everyone involved had been at the launch site with little break since 9am the previous morning. Bridenstine relied on slugs of his favorite caffeinated beverage, Mountain Dew, while a jet-lagged Musk described himself as emotionally exhausted and stared off into space before answering questions from equally zonked journalists.

While the controversy-courting billionaire entrepreneur and the former military aviator don’t have much in common besides a love of space technology, the two are dependent on one another: Musk, who dreams of cities on Mars, needs NASA’s business to stay solvent and develop SpaceX’s technology; Bridenstine, the first politician to lead the space agency, needs Musk’s company to succeed to implement his plan to end NASA’s long wait to send humans into deep space.

And with the successful docking of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft at the International Space Station on March 3, that vision is coming closer to reality. The final stage of the demonstration mission is the Dragon’s departure from the station and a splashdown in the Atlantic, expected on March 8.

A shared launch

The mission, the first demonstration flight of NASA’s commercial crew program, had departed from a historic launch pad that sent the Apollo lunar missions on their way. Asked about the significance, Musk mused that “humanity landing on the moon, man, that was maybe the greatest thing ever. So I can’t believe we’re launching from that pad. Thank you for letting us do that.”

“Thank you for refurbishing it,” Bridenstine replied. The former Republican lawmaker from Oklahoma, elected first in 2012, spent his time in office calling on NASA to use private companies for work in low-earth orbit, like flying astronauts to the International Space Station, so that NASA could send more expensive missions to the moon and Mars. That advocacy led him to be tapped by president Donald Trump to lead the agency, a job the Senate confirmed him to in April 2018.

“I hope we go back to the moon soon,” Musk said.

“That’s the goal,” Bridenstine replied, a plan he shared with Quartz readers last year.

“Hell, we should have a base on the moon, a permanently occupied human base on the moon, and send people to Mars, and build a city on Mars,” Musk said. “That’s what we should do.”

Growing pains

Before the launch, the two men had taken a look at the rocket together. According to Bridenstine, Musk explained to him that part of his motivation for creating his company in 2002—famously started with a scheme to buy surplus Russian ICBMs and send a greenhouse to Mars—was to inspire a boost in NASA’s budget. Asked about the doubters at the time, Musk said he thought the company was likely to fail, too, but “it was worth trying anyway.”

But Musk hasn’t always had an easy relationship with the US space agency. Early on, he picked fights, challenging NASA’s decision to award a contract to a potential competitor in 2003, just a year after he started his company and five years before his first rocket would take flight. Michael Griffin, the NASA administrator from 2005 to 2009, led the charge to give private companies a shot at flying space missions, but nursed a personal enmity with Musk dating to disagreements from his time consulting for SpaceX in the company’s early days.

Even as SpaceX became a regular NASA contractor, there were growing pains. Alan Marty, a NASA consultant, recalled that Musk threatened to double the price for every NASA engineer sent to observe the company’s work.

And under Bridenstine, NASA has launched a safety review of SpaceX and Boeing, the two companies that aim to fly astronauts for the space agency. The review was prompted by Musk taking a puff on a cannabis cigarette during a podcast, and is seen in the aerospace industry as a warning for him to behave, or at least be more discreet.

Friends with benefits

SpaceX has proven its value to the space agency, saving it money and pushing other NASA contractors to reduce prices and invest in innovation. And Musk and the rest of the SpaceX team are always clear about the existential debt they owe the government space program. Indeed, the lead-up to the launch was dominated by the company and the agency celebrating their cooperation on the highly complex task of taking people into space safely.

And, while SpaceX’s entire business is built on fixed-price contracts to save the space agency money, the bulk of Boeing’s civil space income comes from traditional NASA contracts like the Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket that has cost taxpayers $14 billion so far. That’s far more than the cost of the two commercial crew vehicles, the $4.82 billion Boeing Starliner or the $3.14 billion SpaceX Crew Dragon.

With both SpaceX and Boeing vying to fly astronauts this year, the stakes for this new model of space business haven’t been higher. In his closing remarks, Bridenstine laid out the agency’s long-term plan to return to the moon, develop the technology for long-term human space exploration, and head for Mars. The benefits of the space program are already felt here on earth, he added, from remote-imaging monitoring climate change and food production to communications networks fostering global connectivity.

Musk might have expressed the sentiment more succinctly earlier in the presser.

“We want the things that are in science fiction novels and movies not to be science fiction forever, we want them to be real someday,” he said.