NASA, SpaceX and the private-public partnership that caused the flight of the Crew Dragon

NASA, SpaceX and the private-public partnership that caused the flight of the Crew Dragon
© UPI Photo

The flight of the Crew Dragon was the result of a shotgun wedding between NASA, with its bureaucratic culture that prizes safety and process above all, and SpaceX, a free-wheeling private company that values outside-the-box thinking and rapid decision making. Two organizations more different from one another could not exist, yet by working together they have achieved something wonderful.

While the plan to shift from the space shuttle to commercial spacecraft has its origins during the George W. Bush administration, the current version of Commercial Crew was developed by the Obama administration. Because of a number of blunders surrounding President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCould the coming 'red wave' election become a 'red tsunami'? Bottom line Barack Obama wishes a happy 58th birthday to 'best friend' Michelle MORE’s cancellation of the Constellation deep space exploration program, Commercial Crew was almost stillborn. Congress greeted that cancellation with bipartisan fury and thus seemed in no mood to approve the Obama proposal that NASA would pay for the development of commercial spacecraft that would take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Lori Garver, the deputy NASA administrator under President Obama, gives a surprisingly frank account of a meeting in 2010 that she, then-NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, the head of OMB and the White House director of legislative affairs had with then-Sens. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonOvernight Energy & Environment — Earth records its hottest years ever Global temperatures in past seven years hottest ever observed, new data show NASA welcomes chief scientist, senior climate adviser in new dual role MORE (D-Fla.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who were the chair and ranking member of the Senate committee that oversaw NASA. What occurred at the meeting could be described as political sausage making at its worst.


In essence, the participants struck an agreement that would start the Commercial Crew program as Obama envisioned. But in return the White House would have to support the development of a heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System, the design of which was spelled out in exacting detail so as not to give NASA any wiggle room to slow-walk the project.

The Obama team came away with a less than optimal deal, partly because of trust issues created by the cancellation of Constellation and partly because the House was not included in the meeting. Congress underfunded Commercial Crew for its initial years. The Space Launch System has become an expensive monstrosity, made obsolete before its first flight by reusable rockets created by Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskHillicon Valley — States probe the tech giants Equilibrium/Sustainability — Bald eagle comeback impacted by lead poison Tesla puts Cybertruck production on hold until early 2023: report MORE’s SpaceX.

The politicians patting themselves on the back for the Crew Dragon’s success should practice some humility. Few of them have covered themselves in glory concerning this innovative program, not in the White House and not in Congress. President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump lawyers to Supreme Court: Jan. 6 committee 'will not be harmed by delay' Two House Democrats announce they won't seek reelection DiCaprio on climate change: 'Vote for people that are sane' MORE, who has done much to revive America’s space effort through the Artemis return to the moon program and efforts to encourage the commercial development of space, simply inherited a program begun by George W. Bush and improved upon by Barack Obama. Trump made a speech after the launch that was mostly inspirational, though he did take a shot at his predecessor, as well.

Even former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenMadame Tussauds unveils new Biden and Harris figures US raises concerns about Russian troop movements to Belarus Putin tests a model for invading Ukraine, outwitting Biden's diplomats MORE tried to grab some credit for the Dragon’s successful launch. The Crew Dragon launch is forcing the 2020 presidential candidate to develop a space policy.

The engineers and managers at both NASA and SpaceX, working long hours solving technical problems after technical problems, day after day, deserve the most credit. The SpaceX employees worked for nine long years, first getting the company’s proposal approved by NASA, then developing and testing the first commercially built and operated spacecraft that can take human beings to and from low Earth orbit. NASA workers lent their assistance, making approvals and offering advice to their commercial opposite numbers.

The Crew Dragon has proven the new model for spacecraft development from now on. Already, SpaceX is building and testing prototypes for a true interplanetary craft called Starship. One version of Starship will be designed to land people on the moon under a NASA contract in the Artemis program. Blue Origin, Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosFree speech, Whole Foods, and the endangered apolitical workplace Space: One important thing that might retain bipartisan focus Virtual realities may solve Fermi's paradox about extraterrestrials MORE’ company, is building a reusable rocket called New Glenn to take people and cargo to low Earth orbit and Blue Moon to compete with SpaceX to land people on the moon.

In the near term, the men and women who work tirelessly to open the high frontier of space have provided the world, still groaning under the coronavirus pandemic and recent racial unrest, with a much-needed morale boost. Despite mass death, economic privation and political acrimony, humans are still capable of great things. Commercial Crew provides a hope for a better future, in which human beings have expanded to the moon, the planets and — in due course — to the stars.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.