Investing in Space

Watch Elon Musk and NASA chief Jim Bridenstine give an update on SpaceX's astronaut spacecraft

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LOS ANGELES — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine will tour SpaceX headquarters on Thursday, as he checks in on the company's progress toward its first launch of astronauts.

Bridenstine will be joined by SpaceX founder Elon Musk following the tour, as well as the two astronauts NASA assigned to fly on the first mission, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. At the center of of NASA's interest is the SpaceX capsule called Crew Dragon, which the company has been developing since it won a competitive government contract in 2014 for NASA's Commercial Crew program.

The meeting comes at a key time, as the government agency is looking for SpaceX to deliver safely yet quickly on taxpayers' investment.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, left, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk at the Kennedy Space Center following the March 2, 2:49 a.m. EST launch of the SpaceX spacecraft mission to the International Space Station.
NASA | Kim Shiflett

A short history of Commercial Crew

Commercial Crew is NASA's solution to once again launch U.S. astronauts from U.S. soil. Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, astronauts have flown to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft — at a cost to NASA of more than $70 million per seat.

NASA's new program is designed to be competitive. In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX for up to $2.6 billion and Boeing for up to $4.2 billion. Future Commercial Crew contracts would be up for grabs, as NASA would look to buy seats on Boeing's Starliner capsule and SpaceX's Crew Dragon.

Crew Dragon is an evolved version of the company's Cargo Dragon capsule. Launched on top of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets, Cargo Dragon has completed 18 missions to the ISS over nearly a decade. But, even when it was built to launch cargo, SpaceX's intent was always to build a vehicle capable of launching astronauts.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule mounted on the company's Falcon 9 rocket in a hangar at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Yet delays have plagued the program, as NASA intended the first Commercial Crew launches to happen as early as 2017. Both SpaceX and Boeing have had to push back schedules as testing the capsules has taken longer than expected.

In August 2018, NASA named the five astronauts who would be on the first two Boeing flights and the four astronauts for the first two SpaceX flights.

Then NASA ordered a safety review of both companies, which was expected to include hundreds of interviews of employees this year. The review came after Musk smoked marijuana during a videotaped podcast in September 2018. Musk's pot-smoking upset high level NASA officials, according to the Washington Post, causing the agency to conduct a cultural assessment study and look at whether the companies meet NASA's requirements for workplace safety.

As of the beginning of this month, both safety reviews were ongoing. Bridenstine said NASA expects to share the results of the study, saying that "it's going well" in a recent interview.

The successful first test flight to the space station

SpaceX passed a key milestone in March after it completed Demo-1, a mission which saw Crew Dragon launch to and return from the ISS successfully. Crew Dragon splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean to conclude the mission, with representatives for both SpaceX and NASA praising the test.

"The vehicle really did better than we expected and then the rendezvous was phenomenal as we came in," NASA's Steve Stich, deputy manager for the commercial crew program, said.

"I can't believe how well the whole mission has gone," Benjamin Reed, SpaceX's director of crew mission management, said. "Everything happened just perfectly ... almost down to the second."

There were no crew aboard the capsule. But Musk's company included a "dummy" named Ripley in one of Crew Dragon's seats, clad in a SpaceX flight suit. Following the mission's success, NASA scheduled SpaceX's first crewed flight, Demo-2, for July.

NASA and SpaceX won an Emmy award for the combined coverage of the Demo-1 flight.

An explosive setback in April

About two months after the Demo-1 mission, SpaceX conducted a test in Florida of the flown Crew Dragon capsule. While some initial tests were successful, a final test of the capsule's rocket thrusters caused an anomaly that led to an explosion. Leaked video, which an internal NASA memo later confirmed as authentic, showed the explosion almost completely destroying the capsule.

SpaceX created an investigation team shortly after anomaly with officials from NASA, with participation from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. While Bridenstine said that SpaceX's "communication with NASA was good," he though the company's communication with press and the great public "was not."

"NASA and SpaceX have agreed to improve the public communication after such events," Bridenstine said in July.

SpaceX issued a full statement on its website detailing the results of the investigation later in July, which revealed that a leaking component created a chain reaction of events that resulted in the explosion. The company recreated the incident at another facility and used the data to create a new system for Crew Dragon's thrusters, which SpaceX has been testing alongside NASA.

Bridenstine adds pressure as delays continue

The most recent Commercial Crew schedule update was five months ago – just before the Crew Dragon explosion occurred. That's in part because Bridenstine removed NASA's former leader of human spaceflight Bill Gerstenmaier from his role in July. The administrator said NASA needed more urgency in address inflating costs and delayed schedules for its key exploration programs.

Shortly after Gerstenmaier's reassignment, NASA said that the Commercial Crew timeline was under review. But Bridenstine clarified recently that NASA will not provide a new timeline for Commercial Crew until a replacement for Gerstenmaier is found, adding that the agency expects to hire someone in the coming months.

In the meantime, Bridenstine has publicly added pressure, especially on SpaceX. Bridenstine, in a statement the day before Musk gave a highly-anticipated update on the company's next-generation rocket called Starship, said "NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer." While Bridenstine said he was "looking forward to the SpaceX announcement," he emphasized that "Commercial Crew is years behind schedule," adding that "it's time to deliver."

Bridenstine tweet

Although Bridenstine's statement spoke about Commercial Crew, he did not mention Boeing, which is also behind schedule. Asked by The Atlantic whether he was singling out SpaceX, Bridenstine noted that he has "been critical of all contractors that overpromise and underdeliver."

During the Starship presentation, Musk responded to Bridenstine.

"From a SpaceX resource standpoint, our resources are overwhelmingly on Falcon and Dragon. Let's be clear, it was really quite a small percentage of SpaceX that did Starship," Musk said, noting that he believes less than 5% of the company's total workforce had been working on the new rocket.

While Musk has said SpaceX will be ready for its next milestone, known as an inflight abort test, in about 10 weeks, Bridenstine has remained skeptical. Testing the updates to Crew Dragon following the explosion, as well as capsule's parachute systems, will take at least three more months, Bridenstine estimated.