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For the past nine years, NASA astronauts have launched with Russian cosmonauts, squeezed shoulder to shoulder in a small capsule that takes off from Kazakhstan. Together, they fly to humankind’s only off-world home, the ISS. Although the former Cold War rivals share the station, the Americans haven’t been keen to rely on the Russians for a ride. After all, shouldn’t the nation that landed people on the moon be able to send them into the space above Earth?
Three years after the space shuttles left Cape Canaveral for good, SpaceX moved in, signing a lease on the country’s most famous launchpad.
That same year, 2014, NASA granted SpaceX a billion-dollar contract to build a new astronaut-transportation system. The agency gave a similar deal to Boeing. There were no in-house options then; George W. Bush had canceled the shuttle program, and Barack Obama had canceled Bush’s plan to build a new fleet of vehicles to fly astronauts to the space station and beyond.
The new program, known as Commercial Crew, was meant to help NASA ditch the Russians and fly its astronauts on something that could bear a “Made in America” tag. The arrangement with Roscosmos, the Russian agency, wasn’t cheap: In the past decade, the cost of a single Soyuz seat has risen from about $50 million to $90 million. The U.S. space-shuttle program had been canceled in part because it was too expensive, and NASA hoped that by turning the job over to the private sector, and hiring more than one company to do it, the agency could drive down the cost of routine travel to orbit. A sense of patriotism mattered nearly as much as the price; a spacefaring nation should be capable of dispatching its own explorers.
NASA has always relied on contractors to build the hardware for its crewed missions, from the lunar landers to the space shuttles. But this time, the agency wasn’t in charge as it used to be. The systems’ design—each nut and bolt, down to the toilet inside the astronaut capsule—was left up to the two companies.
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For NASA, the arrangement felt pleasantly familiar with Boeing, a longtime contractor accustomed to the agency’s rules and, more important, willing to play by them. A feisty start-up such as SpaceX, by contrast, made its own.
Often, the work felt like a trust exercise. In 2013, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule was on its way to deliver supplies to the ISS. The launch had unfolded smoothly, but when the capsule reached orbit, a jammed valve on the spacecraft started causing trouble. As SpaceX engineers in the control room scrambled to troubleshoot the problem, ready to terminate the mission if necessary, senior NASA officials hovered in the background, whispering to one another about potential fixes. Lori Garver, then NASA’s deputy administrator, was among them, hoping they would swoop in and help the SpaceX team before it was too late. “Maybe you should tell that to them!” she said to Bill Gerstenmaier, then NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration. But Gerstenmaier held back. He wanted the SpaceX engineers to find a solution—which they did—and he seemed to trust them to do it. “That’s when I knew NASA was starting to accept this, and it was gonna work,” Garver told me recently.