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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 Obama’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 NelsonSenate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 Democrats sound alarm on possible election chaos Trump, facing trouble in Florida, goes all in 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.

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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 MuskBlue Origin takes one small step toward being a competitor to SpaceX Virgin Hyperloop to build new certification center in West Virginia SpaceX awarded contract to build US military tracking satellites 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 John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' 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 ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama gives Twitter shoutouts to early voters facing challenges: 'You're an inspiration to all of us' Obama highlights Biden's tweet from a year ago warning Trump wasn't ready for pandemic Why childcare must be a priority to restart the economy MORE. 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 BidenFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' 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.

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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 BezosBlue Origin takes one small step toward being a competitor to SpaceX Democrats question Amazon over reported interference of workers' rights to organize Hillicon Valley: Twitter lacked adequate cybersecurity protection ahead of July hacks, regulator says | Twitter, Facebook clamp down on New York Post article about Hunter Biden | YouTube bans COVID-19 vaccine misinformation 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.