When was the last time you felt truly inspired? When you felt an excitement so palpable, you could feel it deep in your gut? For me, that day was the beautiful and hopeful Saturday afternoon of May 30, 2020, as I watched SpaceX carry U.S. astronauts into orbit for the first time in nearly a decade.
I experienced that same palpable excitement in 1988, as a new biomedical engineering graduate sitting at my parents’ home eagerly awaiting an offer letter from GE Aerospace. To this day, I remember the nervousness of opening the envelope, something my father would laughingly tease me about over these last three decades.
I was part of the 1988 return-to-flight team after the devastating 1986 Challenger accident. On a June morning as I drove through the Johnson Space Center (JSC) guard gate for the very first time, I felt a new beginning—the same new beginning the world just witnessed—that my life would be changed forever.
I spent the next 25 years as a NASA contractor, working in the Health and Human Performance program, responsible for NASA’s human research and astronaut medical care. In a long career like mine, one experiences highs—like seeing my first mission launch (STS-40) or seeing Neil Armstrong speak—and lows—like the STS-107 accident. After a near-perfect science mission, I returned home after a long night’s work, and decided to take a quick shower before watching the Columbia landing. As I turned the water off, I heard the phone ringing and ringing. It was my sister to tell me the Shuttle had just blown up close by over her home in the Dallas area.
The U.S. Space Program has had failures but so many more incredible accomplishments, and I am forever grateful for my long space career. I cherish it fondly and keep in touch with colleagues, but my enthusiasm for my job and the agency began waning in my last couple of years there.
In 2011, I saw the wind basically go out of NASA’s sails as the last Shuttle mission STS-135 came to wheel stop. Without another launch capability, the United States would have to rely on Russia to ferry our crews into space. It simply wasn’t the same.
It finally dawned on me how bureaucratic the agency had become when I suddenly had several new NASA bosses after the Shuttle program ended. How can an entire program end and no civil servants be let go? I felt I was reporting to everyone, and accomplishing nothing. I no longer felt part of something bigger. I was disheartened that NASA was no longer a special place but just another bloated government agency. The wind went out of my sails, so I left soon thereafter.
Friends asked how I felt about private space companies like SpaceX and were surprised to find out I was a huge fan. For me, NASA had become a stodgy agency that had stopped innovating. Privatized space flight was the only hope, and I had an inkling that if anyone could do it, Elon Musk could. Certainly, the money from his PayPal success helped, but he has qualities that are so much more important: curiosity, passion, and sheer determination (what we Texans call “just plain grit.”)
In my last few years at NASA, sadly I met no one with these qualities. In some instances, innovation was even discouraged because it was “outside the scope of the contract.” I felt like I was basically being told to just keep my head down and get my job done. Instead, I left, and it turned out to be the best decision I ever made.
Thank goodness Musk didn’t just keep his head down. He founded SpaceX nearly 20 years ago, driven by his sincere personal belief that the only way to save humanity is by colonizing other planets. He was 30 years old. Armed with $165 million in cash and an elevator pitch, he literally began cold calling some of the brightest aerospace minds. Musk wanted to buy European rockets, but the Arianespace rockets were too expensive. The Europeans told Musk that Russia was looking to sell some repurposed rockets, but when Musk contacted them, the Russians kept increasing the price of each rocket, then taunted Musk: “Oh, little boy, you don’t have the money?” They said their technology was not for sale to capitalist billionaires, and spat on Musk’s shoes as a sign of great disrespect.
But he kept going. As all great innovators do, Musk learned from each experience. The Russian experience encouraged him to build his own rockets. Thank you, Russian space directors! He assembled an incredible team and devoured knowledge, learning everything he could on his insatiable quest to outer space.
Believe me, there was a fairly sizable faction within NASA that wanted SpaceX to spectacularly fail. NASA didn’t make it easy on Musk, but he passed test after test with flying colors. By the way, these tests were all the things that NASA itself could never achieve.
Musk was (mostly) ever-gracious through the ordeal, even crediting NASA with saving his company in 2008. Cash poor and in jeopardy of failing, NASA awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion NASA contract to fly supplies to the International Space Station. The rest is history.
In 2014, Musk signed a five-year lease with NASA for use of the famous Kennedy Space Center launch pad 39A. I remember watching the press conference. NASA administrators certainly played to the cameras, but there were moments when they looked utterly defeated at the prospect of handing over the keys.
Musk doesn’t just succeed; he exceeds every expectation and does it with a “cool factor” that NASA never could. Who else names his recovery ships “Just Read The Instructions” and “Of Course I Still Love You”? Who else hires the “Batman” Hollywood costume designer to design the super sleek spacesuits Bob and Doug were wearing on launch day? And who else builds a reusable rocket and lands it upright on a barge floating in the middle of the ocean? Elon Musk does. Not NASA. And not Russia. And not Boeing, which received double the amount of funding as Musk and has yet to get its competitor Starliner off the ground.
NASA has a partnership with SpaceX, and they both certainly deserve credit for this historic launch, but JSC has over 14,000 employees while SpaceX has 8,000. I have to ask myself: What do all those people in Houston do?
Russian space expert Vadim Lukashevich said in a Russian television interview translated by ARS Technica that Musk has presented the Russian space program with a fork in the road. Russia has been getting $90 million for each U.S. astronaut launched—amounting to $400 million per year—well over the cost of their entire launch program. That means Russia was running its program for free. Russia could do absolutely nothing and still earn money. Now they are forced to do something, or their space program will end in the history books.
As Steve Jobs often said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” Musk has led America back to glory. NASA and Russia are certainly followers. I say get out of the way and let SpaceX forge the path forward.
Jacqueline Havelka is a rocket-scientist-turned-writer and the founder of Inform Scientific.