NASA and Elon Musk need each other too much to keep arguing

Space men.
Space men.
Image: AP Photo/Alex Gallardo
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Five years into the most ambitious partnership between a space agency and a technology company, tensions are running high—but isn’t that to be expected when you’re trying to strap humans to a tube of explosives and hurl them into space?

The US government has not flown humans into orbit since 2011, when the space shuttle was retired, and in 2014 it hired SpaceX and Boeing to build and operate replacement vehicles that will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX founder Elon Musk met today at the latter’s headquarters near Los Angeles. Their confab came after Bridenstine questioned SpaceX’s commitment to delivering the new spacecraft his agency desperately needs. Today, the two men struck a conciliatory tone, emphasizing their shared desire to fly people into orbit safely and praising each other’s teams. Bridenstine even said he has high hopes SpaceX’s next rocket, called Starship—after regular service to ISS is restored.

NASA is paying SpaceX some $2.6 billion to develop a crew-carrying version of its Dragon spacecraft, while Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, building a spacecraft called Starliner, for which it is being paid more than $4.2 billion. Both vehicles were originally expected to launch in 2017, but now won’t go into operation until 2020.

Some of the delay is the result of Congress underfunding the program in its early days, but SpaceX suffered an explosive anomaly during at test earlier this year that added to the wait.

The astronauts who will take the first ride in the capsule, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, said that while the failure was disappointing and raised tough questions from family and friends, it is typical when designing a new vehicle for extreme environments. Both are test pilots by training, now spending the bulk of their time here at SpaceX headquarters running simulations and training, saying they had significant insight into the spacecraft and would be comfortable flying it when development is said and done.

Peas in a space pod

Whatever the tensions, NASA and SpaceX need each other: Bridenstine has been asked to sell Congress on an accelerated return to the moon in 2024, but lawmakers seem unlikely to fund the project. Successfully flying astronauts again may be the biggest accomplishment he can target in his tenure, which has been framed as an effort to get NASA’s various delayed programs back on track.

For NASA, the moon mission and commercial crew are linked: Bridenstine related that on a recent official visit to Japan, he was unable to promise that a Japanese astronaut could be onboard the ISS during the 2020 Olympics—a point of prestige for the nation—because of the uncertainty surrounding commercial crew. That, in turn, made it difficult to secure Japanese funding and participation in NASA’s lunar return. It will also be difficult to fund the moon program if NASA must keep paying $85 million per seat to fly astronauts on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.

Musk, meanwhile, counts the US space agency as his most important customer. Without contracts to resupply the International Space Station and launch science missions—as well as years of support and development funding—SpaceX would be unable to pursue Musk’s plans of pushing humanity out into the solar system.

After Musk showed Bridenstine the latest flight hardware and the two discussed their schedules, both tried to stay on message, and mostly did. Still, when Bridenstine allowed that funding cuts had slowed commercial crew in 2013 and 2014, Musk noted that “unnamed other programs”—read: the deep space vehicles being developed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin—had received additional funding. Later, talking about how committed he is to getting the job done for NASA, Musk mused that it was a “travesty” it had taken this long to launch.

“But it’s going to be a great day!” Bridenstine interrupted.

What’s next? 

SpaceX completed a successful dress rehearsal in February, flying an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft to the ISS and back. The final milestone for certification is an in-flight abort test, which will demonstrates that the Dragon can carry its crew to safety in the event that something goes wrong with the rocket carrying them to orbit.

In April, the same spacecraft that flew to the ISS in February was being prepared to undergo this test when it exploded. In July, Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s chief reliability engineer, said that a leaky valve in the vehicle’s plumbing allowed some propellant to react with a titanium valve, causing an explosion. Bridenstine recalled today that Musk warned him last year that the Dragon’s propulsion systems represented the biggest risk in the vehicle—and that Musk had been right.

Now, that plumbing has been redesigned, and it will undergo a battery of tests similar to the one that caused the previous anomaly. If all goes well, the spacecraft and rocket it will ride during the test will be shipped to Cape Canaveral by December, Musk said, with a demonstration occurring soon afterward.

There have also been problems with the parachutes used to float the Dragon down to a splashdown in the ocean when it returns from space. Musk said he spent the weekend working with the company’s parachute supplier to bring a new design onboard. Today, he said they had settled on a new iteration of the company’s parachutes that will use lines made of high-strength Xylon and reinforced stitching for added safety. In the next two months, SpaceX hopes to perform 10 drop tests with the new chutes in order to understand exactly how they will perform.

If all the drops and tests of the Dragon’s new propulsion system go well—both Musk and Bridenstine cautioned that new issues could crop up and delay the program—the first crewed launch could take place in the first quarter of 2020.

The other moving parts

One open question is who will OK the vehicles for launch. Bridenstine fired the head of NASA’s human exploration programs, Bill Gerstenmaier, this summer and has yet to find a full-time replacement. He said today that his search was narrowing, and that he expects to announce the new associate administrator in the weeks ahead.

Musk downplayed any issues with the speed of NASA’s certification. “Is this some kind of NASA bureaucracy delaying this?” he asked rhetorically, answering “no.”

Boeing has been less public about its struggles, but last year its program was delayed by a toxic propellant leak during preparation for an abort test. Yesterday, Boeing executive John Mulholland said that his company was preparing to complete its abort test in November and then fly its dress rehearsal mission in December, but the space agency has not signed off on that timeline.

As for NASA, it “expects to update flight timelines as new leadership in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate is selected,” Josh Finch, an agency spokesperson, told Quartz. “However, NASA is not holding back flight tests for new leadership. Those dates are set between NASA and our commercial provider, and only when both are ready will we fly.”