Op-ed: Unleashing the Dragon – the NASA bargain behind this week’s SpaceX launch

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Lori and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk during a tour he gave her of the company’s facilities in Hawthorne, California in September 2010.

The following is a preview of a forthcoming book from Lori Garver, former NASA deputy administrator, and Michael Sheetz, CNBC space reporter. “Bureaucrats and Billionaires: The Race to Save NASA” will tell the story of how a handful of revolutionaries helped pave the way for a new era at NASA.  Lori’s first-hand accounts include the decades leading up to the final negotiations that closed the deal for the commercial crew program as well as her collaboration with key players such as President Obama, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. 

The narratives written in the first person are Lori’s personal accounts, while the remaining sections are penned by both Lori and Michael.

SpaceX is only a day away from its planned launch of NASA astronauts. It’s a historic mission that will once again give the United States the ability to send humans to space, now at a fraction of the cost of previous government owned and operated systems. But, a decade ago in the nation’s capital, it wasn’t clear this day would ever come.

In the summer of 2010, NASA’s human spaceflight program was at a crossroads.  With the retirement of the Space Shuttle approaching, the transition team for President Obama had discovered the planned Shuttle replacement program was already billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. NASA had designed the program based on Shuttle technologies from the 1970’s in an attempt to employ the existing standing army and utilize the expansive infrastructure developed in the 1960’s. The program was called Constellation and was extremely popular with Congress, and the contractors who were benefiting from the tax dollars coming their way. After spending six years and $9 billion dollars, a blue-ribbon investigative panel in late 2009 had found the program to be so badly managed, behind schedule and over budget that it was “unsustainable.” The same investigative panel endorsed establishing a new competition for transporting astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), in which both large and small companies could participate.

In February 2010 the Obama Administration requested $19 billion for NASA – a $700 million increase in the first year, with an additional $6 billion over five years. The budget proposed cancelling Constellation which freed up funding for two more needed Space Shuttle missions and extension of the ISS from 2015 to at least 2020. New funding was also provided for Earth sciences, advanced technology, rocket engine development, infrastructure revitalization — and a partnership with U.S. industry to transport astronauts to the ISS called Commercial Crew.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the immediate Congressional reaction to the proposed budget was simple: Hell no. An epic battle raged for months, pitting traditional space loyalists against a new generation of space advocates, who believed NASA had been hijacked and needed rescuing. In one corner were the large stakeholders – aerospace companies, lobbyists, astronauts, associations, southern Congressional delegations and most of NASA. In the other corner – a band of dreamers who called themselves “New Space,” a handful of rogue bureaucrats, political appointees, and a few new billionaires.

All transformational shifts are disruptive to the status quo, but the latter group thought the nation’s space program deserved a higher purpose than perpetuating existing contracts. To the dreamers, and anyone not benefiting from the current system, it was obvious the status quo was not delivering the most innovative space program. But even with the space agency’s recent lack of progress, the results of the blue ribbon committee, and the president’s party in control in both the House and Senate, Congress opposed the proposal. In hearing after hearing, administration witnesses who attempted to explain the plan were berated. 

Searching for support

By early April, in an effort to break the log jam, it was decided the president would visit Kennedy Space Center to show his personal support for NASA, while extending an olive branch to the space community. A primary criticism of the proposal had been that there was no set time frame or destination for astronauts to go beyond low earth orbit. A key underpinning of the plan had been to drive down the cost of getting to space by tapping into private sector incentives, allowing NASA to invest in technologies that would reduce the amount of money and time required for future human exploration beyond low earth orbit. The president wanted to make real progress instead of empty proclamations. Such progress would put NASA in a position to deliver on any destination that aligned with future national objectives for far less time and money. President Bush’s proclamation of a lunar return by 2020 had become empty rhetoric without a rationale or budget and landing humans on Mars was even more unrealistic. As the president and his team considered the upcoming speech, they decided to address the criticism directly and asked what destinations NASA could realistically achieve by 2025.

Pressed to identify what could actually be accomplished within budget over the next 15 years, the administration identified an asteroid mission: Uniquely attainable, compelling and would start us on a path to Mars. Asteroids are critically important objects to study for scientific research – possibly carrying the seeds of life, for long-term space development – mining resources to build stations or starships, and for their propensity to impact Earth and potentially wipe out humanity. An asteroid’s low gravity environment would eliminate the need for an expensive lander and its distance from Earth would provide an analogue to study the human body’s reaction to extended time in deep space – one of the biggest unknown obstacles to sending people to Mars. We also knew that the process of even selecting candidates to visit would be valuable, since it would require improvement of our asteroid detection and characterization capability.

President Obama approached Lori immediately following his speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010 and asked, “do you think this will help?” She responded “if it doesn’t, nothing will.” Also visible in the photo are KSC director Robert Cabana, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astronaut Leroy Chao and Bill Nye.

On April 15, Obama traveled to Kennedy in Florida and announced the U.S. would send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and then to Mars in the 2030’s. The president also agreed to restore a large piece of the Constellation program – the Orion capsule, which would have been streamlined to be used as a lifeboat for the astronauts on the ISS. These two significant adjustments to the initial proposal were sincere attempts to find a compromise that would allow us to move forward with the other elements of the NASA plan, including commercial crew. But neither offer placated the opposition. The aerospace industrial base had made a pact with each other, and with the Hill, to fight cancellation of any Constellation contracts. Additionally, the existing constituency studying asteroids was too small to successfully lobby for more money to study asteroids – a textbook example of the relentless momentum of the status quo in government spending. Criticism for not having a destination was replaced by criticism that it wasn’t the destination they wanted.

The Faustian bargain

By summer, the stand-off showed no signs of improvement. As the NASA Administrator and I rode to Capitol Hill in the back seat of his town car, I knew the future of the U.S. space program hung in the balance. We had been summoned, along with the head of OMB and White House Director of Legislative Affairs, by Senator Hutchison and Senator Nelson – a Democrat and a Republican – who chaired NASA’s oversight committees. 

Senator Nelson spoke first, stating he had the proxy of Senator Mikulski, the Democratic Chair of the Appropriations Committee and that they were in agreement with the Republicans on what was about to be offered. He then deferred to Senator Hutchison, who relayed she had the proxy of Senator Shelby, the Ranking Member of the NASA Appropriation Subcommittee.

The meeting at the Russell Senate building in summer 2010. Lori is seated next to then OMB director Jack Lew, across from former NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, to whose right is Senator Bill Nelson, Senator Kay Hutchison, and former head of the White House legislative affairs Rob Nabors.

Senator Hutchison outlined her bargain: If and only if the Administration agreed to have NASA build their own large rocket and capsule – keeping the existing multi-billion-dollar contracts intact – would the four Senators agree not to block the President’s top initiative: Commercial Crew. I feared the deal being offered would end up setting back much needed progress. NASA couldn’t afford to fund both the Commercial Crew and Constellation programs without significant cuts to its other priorities. Nearly half of NASA’s $19 billion budget at the time was spent on a handful of large, long-established programs that Congress would never cancel — and the other half was needed to cover its massive institutional costs. The “deal” would consume 80% of NASA’s discretionary funding for new initiatives on a slightly different version of Constellation – still based on 40-year-old technology.

Additionally, funding two different methods of reaching the space station seemed to be in conflict. Commercial Crew was designed to be a partnership with industry, with companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin bidding on early development contracts. It was created to incentivize private sector investment, allowing companies to compete and expand markets – lowering costs to the government. NASA fully funding the development of its own launch vehicle and capsule – at five times the cost – would mean the agency would be competing with the private sector, undermining capturable markets and investment incentives.

I also feared the Senators may not ultimately deliver on what they were offering. The House of Representatives had not been consulted on the proposal and was unlikely to go along with the arrangement. Due to the timing of the budget process, the administration would be required to show their hand first – with no assurances Commercial Crew would ever receive its full funding as promised. Any funding delays would mean paying the Russian space agency to ferry its astronauts to and from the orbital laboratory – at a cost of $80 million a seat and rising. The ability to transition to U.S. companies carrying astronauts to the space station within five years would require the funds to be received in full and on time – even then, there were no guarantees.

When Senator Hutchison finished outlining the offer, all eyes turned to Jack Lew for the Administration’s response. Lew was new to the position, but he had been well briefed and was close to the president – later serving as Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Treasury.  Lew described to the Senators why the President had proposed an increased budget with significant changes at a critical time for the agency. But by now it was clear we had to make a deal. And Lew managed to play a final card. In addition to Commercial Crew, he said we also needed their support for the new technology program, increased investment in Earth Science missions and completing the Webb telescope. These were not controversial programs in a discussion outside of budget considerations, so the Senators agreed and the parties stood to shake hands.

I was uneasy agreeing to a “deal” with so few specifics. We hadn’t discussed the amounts that would be required for each priority or how NASA was going to pay for all these commitments or even how to work with the House to get their support for the arrangement. I attempted to interject questions about levels of funding and what specifically would have to be canceled in order to deliver on these initiatives, but my concerns were politely dismissed. Reaching even this agreement had been incredibly challenging and no one wanted to risk it coming apart immediately. Securing at least some support for Commercial Crew was our top priority, but it had come at a very high cost.  

As feared, the senators only partially delivered on their end of the deal, providing less than half of the president’s budget request for the program over the next several years. Meanwhile, the administration kept its word and continued Constellation contracts and budgets at a cost to taxpayers of now over $50 billion. By NASA’s own estimates the program, now called the Space Launch System (SLS), is still 18 months away from a test flight.  

Although I viewed the compromise as a setback and thought we had given away more than we had received – we had gotten our foot in the door – the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent.  Given the force of the opposition, this was no small achievement. There were many more challenges ahead, but knowing the dreamers as I did, I thought they just might pull it off. 

Capturing the flag

It’s now 2020. Albeit a few years behind schedule, in no small part due to Congress not holding up their end of the deal, the Commercial Crew program is about to deliver. NASA and SpaceX are in the final days of preparing to launch astronauts on the company’s Crew Dragon capsule for the first time.

After years of building trust between NASA and new space companies they have learned to work together. The Commercial Crew program has nearly achieved its development goals: Two human space transportation systems for a total budget of $6 billion. Compared to the Constellation-based plan to send astronauts to the space station, NASA estimates that Commercial Crew will save taxpayers between $20 billion and $30 billion – two spacecraft for a quarter of the cost of just one.

The program has kept a cap on government spending, with both competitors – SpaceX and Boeing – having picked up the tab when necessary. Safety has repeatedly been emphasized, by NASA and the companies, while the competitive nature of the program has kept both focused on being the first to launch astronauts. Once NASA certifies the spacecraft for flight, the companies will vie for contracts to fly NASA astronauts.

Commercial Crew is also set to bookend another piece of U.S. history. The final Space Shuttle mission carried a very unique American flag, one that also flew on the first Space Shuttle mission in 1981. When the Space Shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth in 2011, its crew left the flag on the International Space Station. The flag was marked with a simple message: “Only to be removed by crew launching from KSC.”

President Obama noted the importance of the flag when he spoke with the final Space Shuttle crew after the mission. He described it as a “‘capture the flag’ moment” for private space companies, saying “good luck to whoever grabs that flag.”

A few days later, on July 15, 2011, SpaceX publicly committed to returning that flag.

It had only been a year since we had made our Faustian bargain with Congress that got the new commercial program started – so I was pleased to see the astronauts’ light-hearted gesture, the president’s acknowledgement and SpaceX’s confidence. I spent a lot of time playing capture the flag with the other neighborhood kids growing up and always worked hard to win. The stakes were never this high and the games never lasted this long – but it is still fun to win.

July 18, 2011 –“Inside the International Space Station’s Node 2 or Harmony, the STS-135 crew presented the Expedition 28 crew this special U.S. flag and mounted it on the hatch leading to Atlantis. The flag was flown on the first space shuttle mission, STS-1, and flew on this mission to be presented to the space station crew. It will remain onboard until the next crew launched from the U.S. will retrieve it for return to Earth. It will fly from Earth again, with the crew that launches from the U.S. on a journey of exploration beyond Earth orbit.”


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