NASA, SpaceX Aim To Launch Private Era In Orbit If all goes well, an unmanned capsule will become the first commercial spacecraft to visit the International Space Station. SpaceX and NASA have been working together to make this launch happen, navigating cultural differences between the young startup and the veteran agency.

NASA, SpaceX Aim To Launch Private Era In Orbit

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Tomorrow a private spaceship is scheduled to take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The unmanned capsule is supposed to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. It'll be the first commercial spacecraft to visit that station. And in just a few years, the start-up company behind the craft is hoping to carry astronauts.

This company is called SpaceX. It wants to make space flight cheaper so that someday people could live on other planets. And its corporate culture is very different than you'd find at NASA. So this small private company and the veteran space agency have had to learn how to get along. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: SpaceX recently had a kind of rehearsal for the upcoming launch of its cargo-carrying capsule, which is called Dragon.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dragon configured for solar array charging.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Controllers in Florida sat in front of computer screens. Their chatter sounded a lot like you'd hear from NASA's mission control.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Dragon telemetry and video to Cape assets look good.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Power global.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: MD, we're still go.


GREENFIELDBOYCE: But people wore T-shirts. One guy was wearing a jersey for the company's softball team. It was a far cry from NASA's buttoned-down dress shirts and ties.

SpaceX was founded 10 years ago by Elon Musk, a wealthy Internet entrepreneur who made his fortune with the company PayPal. And he runs his rocket company like a Silicon Valley tech firm.

ELON MUSK: That's the operating system that I have in my head of how to run an organization. And that's how I've created SpaceX. NASA is obviously coming from a different heritage.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: For five decades, NASA was American spaceflight. Now the space shuttles are going to museums. And the government plans to rely on private space taxis to go back and forth to the space station. NASA has been working with companies to make sure that vision of the future will happen. It has a cargo delivery contract with SpaceX worth $1.6 billion. And the space agency has also been handing out plenty of advice.

MUSK: I feel very strongly that SpaceX would not have been able to get started nor would we have made the progress that we have without the help of NASA.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Musk says so far their collaboration has worked.

MUSK: No relationship is perfect, certainly, but on balance it's really good.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The relationship involves daily calls and emails between people who live in two very different worlds. At NASA, the average age is almost 50. Many top managers cherish their childhood memories of watching the Apollo astronauts on TV. Not so at SpaceX, where Musk says the average age is around 30.

MUSK: At age 40, I'm relatively old.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says like other tech companies, SpaceX tries to have a flat organizational structure so everyone can talk to everyone else without having to go through chains of command.

MUSK: We really try to minimize any unnecessary paperwork or any bureaucratic elements. And I think it's also easier if you're a smaller organization than if you're a larger organization to be more nimble.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: SpaceX and NASA also have deeper cultural differences. People at NASA feel the weight of the space agency's long history, which includes heartbreaking tragedies. Wayne Hale worked at NASA for more than 30 years. He was head of the shuttle program after the Columbia disaster.

WAYNE HALE: One of the things that happens is you go through life and you have experiences and bad things happen, and from those experiences you learn perhaps to be more contemplative when you have to make choices.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: For engineers, that means running more tests and more analysis. Hale says to a certain extent that's a good thing, but it costs both time and money.

HALE: And to build a lower cost system, you need to perhaps draw the line back and not do so much. And that's what we're seeing with the commercial space people.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One of the NASA guys helping SpaceX figure out where to draw that line is Michael Horkachuck. He's a NASA official who's been managing work with SpaceX.

MICHAEL HORKACHUCK: They're a little bit different in that they like to build the hardware and test it. And if it doesn't work and breaks, then they'll build another piece with a little change and test it again and not do quite as much documentation and detailed analysis as necessarily NASA would typically do.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But he says sometimes SpaceX sees the wisdom of NASA's ways.

HORKACHUCK: SpaceX is learning how we do things and why we do things. And I think they're pulling some of the best ideas and methods that NASA has had and applying those to their program.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One thing that makes this give-and-take go a bit more smoothly is the fact that around 10 percent of SpaceX employees used to work for NASA. Jon Cowart is a NASA manager assigned to partner with SpaceX as it develops a vehicle that can carry astronauts. He says having former NASA colleagues at meetings can really help when agency officials and SpaceX are trying to relate to each other.

JON COWART: And it makes it a lot easier to find that common ground as we struggle to find the right answer on a way they plan do to something that we may or may not be comfortable with.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And here's another thing that makes it easier. At rock bottom, NASA and SpaceX share a set of core convictions. They both have an almost religious belief in the need for humans to venture forth into space, a geeky love for rockets and technical know-how - plus, they both need each other to succeed. Some people, including Cowart, say SpaceX reminds them of NASA, back in the good old days.

COWART: SpaceX is a young - I would characterize them as almost being like back during Mercury and Gemini and Apollo. That kind of youthful, young enthusiasm that you have when you're first starting something.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The company's first mission to the space station is scheduled to blast off at 4:55 AM tomorrow. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.