How to Grow a Dragon — The Unknown Story of SpaceX and the Space Revolution

On March 16, 1995 I testified before the House Space Sub-Committee and called for the end of the shuttle and for all transportation to and from the International Space Station to be provided by US commercial space companies. This month, after a mere 25 years, that dream is about to be realized, as SpaceX’s Dragon 2 capsule berths with the ISS and delivers 2 astronauts to the station.

NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission will launch from U.S. soil with astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on an American rocket and spacecraft for the first time since 2011. Image credit: NASA.

My testimony wasn’t about me being a prescient oracle of things to come. It was one of several declarations on behalf of a group of concerned and active citizens that it was time to end the old space program and begin a new space revolution. We wanted to throw open the airlock to space for what we believed would be a wave of new participants and companies, while creating a spaceflight market that would drive down the cost of access to the frontier.

While Elon Musk and the SpaceX team and NASA both deserve huge credit for what is happening, it is important that history remember how this came to be, and the many heroes who fought for many years to make it so. A lot of people whose names will never be known poured countless hours, their own funds and at times sacrificed family and job security to clear the path for the companies that today are carrying NASA’s cargo and personnel to space, companies that will also soon be able to carry you and your children to begin the development and settlement of space.

As they say victory has a thousand parents, and this is certainly true now. From those who claim they built the rocketship that led here, to those who start their stories with the arrival of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos on the scene, history often tilts to the loudest and the most visible. There are great books out there such as “The Space Barons” by Christian Davenport that tell the stories of the guys who are in the headlines, but even such excellent volumes still leave out the real story of the greater context of what happened to get us here. (Perhaps it is time for Mr. Davenport to write his second volume.)

What most outside of the field don’t know is that for the last 30 years a battle has raged in the space community. A battle that will not end with the flight of the Dragon, and already extends back to the Moon, but one for which this flight will be a major victory for the underdogs. It is a battle between those building on the legacy of Apollo to open space as a place for humans to make their home and create a space economy, those resting on the laurels of Apollo and who see the space program as a government laboratory and stage, and those for whom those government desires create a cash cow to be milked for short term gain, no matter the long term cost.

While it shows up in few modern recountings, there are records for any who wish to look, and more importantly put the pieces together into the real big picture. While in this short form the whole story and context cannot be justly presented, following are the highlights and most important points you may not have been told for you to understand what you are really witnessing as the Dragon jojns the ISS. This is of course from my perspective, but what I say can be verified, even if some of it is uncomfortable. In fact some of the fights in the revolution took place in these pages, and one can look back in the Space News archives for Opinion pieces, stories and reports of the ins and outs of the campaign.

We begin after Apollo. With no real leadership, the aerospace complex of companies and NASA facilities that had accomplished so much in so little time to achieve the greatest moment in human history drifted. Instead of pushing the envelope further, NASA and its contractors pulled back from the edge and began to literally fly in circles, with the program becoming more about steady jobs and cash for the homes of NASA centers than exploration.

Yet, among the many touted “spin offs” of space, the most important was a generation of children who had been inspired by the amazing feat of our nation placing its first footsteps on another world, and who dedicated their lives to building on that legacy. These dreamers can be seen as four different groups: those who went to work for NASA and the aerospace companies (these either surrendered their dreams or became seen as trouble makers and vagabonds by their government and corporate management); those who spent their lives trying to develop rocketships and technology to enable people to go to and live in space in the private sector (most of whom failed in those early years, some of whom were early hires of the billionaires); those who took up their arms in the philosophical, policy and political trenches (such as myself), and those who went off to make money in technology and who would later return as billionaires (a career choice I wish I had made). The story behind this week’s “return to flight” is really about the beginnings of a revolution all of these people made happen.

One of the very first steps along this path was taken with the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, signed by then President Ronald Reagan, which was perhaps the first formal recognition that the private sector had a potential role not just in building satellites but also flying payloads to space. However, while a laudable piece of legislation, the CSLA essentially languished without a champion for several years.

With the birth of the Space Frontier Foundation in 1988 that champion arrived. By the early 1990s the Foundation was fighting for a citizen based space agenda on many fronts. It was among the only organizations willing to take a consistent pro-frontier, pro-commercial space transportation stand, later joined by the tiny but fiesty Space Access Society, and more recently others such as the National Space Society. The fight was long and hard, and on the way to this week’s historic event a lot of emotional, financial and intellectual blood was spilled, as the establishment aerospace complex forces who are the most threatened by its success did all they could to stop or slow it down.

While Musk was just selling PayPal and Bezos was still selling books online, the pro-frontier movement was calling for space transportation that operated like ships and airplanes. Then, early in the millennium the Foundation issued a white paper on what we called Cheap Access to Space, led by Charles Miller. Along with the constant and unstoppable work of Jim Muncy (a master of the halls of Congress who is perhaps one of the most important people in the history of the space revolution) these ideas flowed into the psyche of those willing to listen on the Hill and in the White House at the time. It was eventually manifested as the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program to begin the transition to private delivery services to the station. In simple terms the COTS concept meant that NASA would work with a group of companies to develop core technologies needed to get them flying and then shift into the role of customer. Out of the COTS concept grew its human child, the CCDEV program (Commercial Crew Development) with the goal of private transportation of NASA personnel to the space station.

So why was the aerospace establishment so threatened? One major reason — safe streams of steady money.

Opening a frontier is not safe, it is not steady, and while it may and should lead to vast new forms of wealth, there are no guarantees. Bezos, Musk and the rest of us have one key overarching goal when it comes to space transportation and operations — make it ever cheaper. After all, it is our mission to open space as a frontier to as many people as possible, and if it is too expensive to get there and back routinely this will not happen. This goal is in almost direct conflict with the goal of old aerospace. Their goal is to keep the price high and steady. Boom. There it is. Thus the war.

The clue is in the rockets and spaceships themselves. Old aerospace is essentially still flying the same throwaway rockets they designed back in the 1960s, while SpaceX, Blue Origin and the other spaceflight firms are building new and reusable systems and space ships (one does not throw away ships).

As they saw what these private players were doing, under pressure from the revolutionaries, some of those in NASA and Congress who hadn’t complete lost their fire began to look at the game differently. COTS-CCDEV program meant NASA was changing the game, and big aerospace liked the old game. This system was dramatically different from the existing “cost-plus” contracting approach that had been (and in many other cases still is) one of the pillars of the aerospace complex.

{In short, cost plus simply means that if the government wants something new, they have to pay the contractor whatever it costs to develop it plus a fixed percentage of that cost as their profit. It doesn’t take a math whiz to understand this means everything will cost more. After all, if I get to keep 10% of my costs, why should I charge you a thousand to develop that new toilet when I can charge a million?}

Thus the idea that NASA would help fund technology development and then pay for services or delivery at a fixed price was anathema to those who had been milking the old system for decades.

Meanwhile, after years of saying the frontier was coming, and fighting to clear the way to make it happen, along came the first serious wealthy pro-frontier investors. The first of note was David Hannah, who funded the ill-fated yet first commercial launch vehicle on the planet, Conestoga. Hannah was followed by Walt Anderson, who underwrote a project to re-fit the Russian Mir station as the world’s first commercial station. Almost in parallel came Bob Bigelow, who began to work on an inflatable space station. Then there was this guy Musk, who showed up in nearly stealth mode at some Foundation events, and as is recounted in other histories decided to start a little company called SpaceX to fly people to Mars. I call these folks the billionaire cavalry. They showed up just in time and as the activists, having started to win a few minds in Washington, were in desperate need of an existence proof that there was private money out there to help fund their dreams. In other words, in terms of 20 years trying to change the laws and policies governing NASA — if we built it, we needed them to come — and they did.

With billions of dollars and a proud yet aging culture of success that still lived off of the glory of Apollo (without its spirit) for a small band of activists to even be noticed was remarkable. Yet using a wide range of media and political tools, it began to happen. Be it head on debates in the media or at conferences and more formal events such as hearings and round tables, to late night and frantic calls to count votes in congressional committees, these people never gave up. Sometimes it would come down to swinging a single congressperson’s vote to save a few tens of millions that might make or break the program, sometimes it might be a simple quiet conversation with the ever growing number of NASA and congressional leaders who were beginning to “get it” as we used to say. Now, with Musk and a few others investing tens of millions in launch systems, and some few enlightened NASA leaders offering other support, the tide was starting to turn. But along the way there were some serious setbacks. One of them actually brings us to this week’s event in space, and it is a bit….scandalous.

For example, few know that one of the reasons the US was forced to buy seats from the Russians for several years is because congressional allies of the old aerospace establishment constantly cut the budget of the COTS/CCDEV program that funded SpaceX and the others, thus forcing them to stretch over many more years than originally planned before they could fly. In other words, big aerospace was more afraid of what might happen to their bottom line and the comfortable world of cost plus contracting if US pro-frontier enterprise driven companies and policies succeeded than they were of forcing the US taxpayers to pay hundreds of millions to a strategic adversary. But in the end it didn’t work. They merely slowed everything down, cost the taxpayers millions of dollars, and probably delayed our push into space by a few years. Meanwhile, the brilliant business people and engineers at SpaceX not only built and are flying their space taxi to the station, they have transformed the satellite launch industry along the way.

What they also didn’t count on, and what I am so proud of, is that be it within the companies or out in the country, those hard core hard working believers dedicated to opening the frontier have not only not given up, but continued to fight and win, law by law, policy by policy, budget by budget and flight by flight.

And so, here we are. There are a million more stories in the city of space, but I hope this one, which is central, helps you understand what you will be watching. After more than a decade, the first American space transportation system will carry humans into space and back again. It is indeed a historic moment, one whose implications I believe are far greater than most reporting on it will understand. Massive kudos to the amazing team at SpaceX, and also to the visionary leaders past and present at NASA who have been bold enough to step out and take the risks that will let this happen.

Also, to be fair, kudos to those who are working within the aerospace industry to transform it and get it back into the new game. Soon Boeing’s Starliner will follow in Dragon’s orbital steps, then the ticket wars will begin as both fight for customers, pushing prices ever lower — exactly as we had hoped so long ago when we started this revolution — and the race for commercial orbital transport will be on as we all work together to enable the new giant leaps into the Solar System.

The flight of the Dragon 2 is just the beginning of what is going to be a series of achievements that history will mark as the moments when the new space age began. When it happens and the light turns green on the berthing control panel, as the employees at NASA and SpaceX let out their collective roar of success, I want them to know that they are not alone, and never have been, as across the country a few thousand others who also helped them fly may have to brush back a tear from their eyes. Apollo’s children will not be stopped.

Writer, speaker, entrepreneur. Helped start the space revolution. Chair of SpaceFund, EarthLight Foundation, New Worlds Institute.

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