One was a venerable giant with a legacy in aerospace that stretched back more than 100 years and a role in every major moment in NASA’s history. The other was a relative upstart that in its early days was derided as little more than a delusional billionaire’s fantasy and that critics said was building its rockets out of wax and rubber bands.
No one thought Elon Musk’s SpaceX would ever beat Boeing to space. Some members of Congress even wondered why NASA would bother awarding contracts to two companies to build capsules to fly astronauts to the International Space Station under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Just let Boeing do it.
But from all appearances, SpaceX has won the competition. The Wednesday launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule with astronauts aboard would not only be the first crewed launch to orbit by a private corporation but also a major upset in a new kind of space race. During the Apollo era, NASA was driven to the moon by a Cold War space race with the Soviet Union, but today companies are reprising the roles of nations in competitions that NASA hopes will help it recapture some of the achievement of a bygone era.
Assuming the launch is a success, it will mark the end of the era in which only government-owned spacecraft achieved such feats and will represent another major step in the privatization of space. That SpaceX is making that transition and not Boeing emphasizes the dramatic nature of the change.
Publicly, the companies downplay any tension. But the competition has grown bitter over the years, particularly as SpaceX went from a rich man’s folly no one took seriously to a disrupter that transformed the aerospace industry.
In the beginning, SpaceX was largely dismissed as a long shot that would never achieve much. “One industry veteran told me, ‘You know their rockets are put together with rubber bands and sealing wax,’ ” recalled Lori Garver, a former deputy NASA administrator who pushed the agency to outsource human spaceflight to the private sector. ” ‘It’s not real. It won’t fly.’ “
When the contracts for the Commercial Crew Program were awarded in 2014, Boeing received the lion’s share, slightly more than 60 percent of the $6.8 billion NASA awarded, getting $4.2 billion compared to the $2.6 billion SpaceX received for the same amount of work.
Perhaps that was understandable. SpaceX was considered a risky bet, a wild card whose brash impatience and embrace of failure clashed with the agency’s more conservative bent. Top executives urged SpaceX employees to be “mouthy,” to disregard traditional chains of command, a trait embodied by Musk that made it seem like a rebellious teenager compared to Boeing’s father figure of the aerospace industry.
“The Hill and big industry and most of the leadership at NASA thought the answer was give the money to Boeing and let them do it,” Garver said. “Change is hard in a bureaucracy. And Eisenhower had it right with the military industrial base: They are not going to let it go easily. And human spaceflight is the holy grail.”
But when it came to the task of flying astronauts, SpaceX perhaps had an edge. Since 2012, it has been flying cargo and supplies to the space station, giving it lots of practice in hoisting spacecraft to orbit and having them meet up and dock with the station. Its Falcon 9 rocket now has a lot of heritage, flying missions not just for NASA but for the commercial sector.
It also was perhaps better suited to perform under the strict limitations of NASA’s “firm-fixed price” contract, one that forces contractors to be efficient. That’s long been one of SpaceX’s trademarks; it not only reuses its rockets but in the early days it repurposed all sorts of materials, even a 125,000-gallon liquid nitrogen tank that an employee found scrapped at an old abandoned Cape Canaveral launch site.
“We had to be super scrappy,” Musk once told The Washington Post. “If we did it the standard way, we would have run out of money. For many years, we were week-to-week on cash flow, within weeks of running out of money. It definitely creates a mind-set of smart spending. Be scrappy or die: Those were our two options. Buy scrap components, fix them up, make them work.”
Boeing, by contrast, was used to the cost-plus contracts often used on big government programs, such as its Space Launch System rocket, that allowed for greater expenditures and longer timelines.
Still, building a spacecraft designed to fly humans is an enormous challenge, and both companies suffered setbacks and delays that pushed back the original launch date from 2017. SpaceX had two Falcon 9 rockets explode, and it struggled with the parachute system that slows the spacecraft down as it flies back to Earth. Last year, its Dragon capsule was destroyed during a test of its emergency abort system. Since then, however, SpaceX has discovered the root causes of all problems and fixed them, NASA says.
Boeing, meanwhile, has continued to struggle. Late last year, its test flight without any astronauts onboard its Starliner spacecraft went terribly awry from the moment it reached orbit. The spacecraft’s onboard computers were off by 11 hours, making the autonomous spacecraft think it was in a different part of the mission. Controllers on the ground had trouble communicating with it.
Later, the company discovered another software glitch – one that would have affected the separation of the crew module from the service module. As a result, Boeing will re-fly the test mission, a flight it says would probably happen toward the end of this year, meaning its first launch with crew wouldn’t happen until 2021.
Inside the company, officials were embarrassed by the setback – another bit of bad news that followed the fatal crashes of two 737 MAX airplanes. It also triggered a role reversal. Boeing, once the trusted partner, was now under renewed scrutiny by NASA, which said it had been lax in its oversight of the company.
NASA also said that after initially giving Boeing a pass, the agency would perform a full safety review of the company, as it did with SpaceX after Musk was seen taking a puff of marijuana on a podcast streamed on the Internet.
One industry official said executives inside Boeing “can’t accept” SpaceX is flying people first. “People are annoyed by Elon — how does this guy who smokes pot beat us?” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because that person was not authorized to speak publicly. “We have a lot of humble pie to eat here.”
Musk once told The Washington Post that SpaceX was able to rise because the big aerospace companies didn’t think it would ever amount to anything.
“They screwed themselves because they were just arrogant and complacent,” he said. “Look, Boeing doesn’t get out of bed for less than $1 billion.”
Boeing’s response was just as combative: “At the turn of the 21st century, before Musk entered the space business, Boeing was building the International Space Station with NASA, where we’ve kept astronauts safe and continuously on orbit. … While others talk about aspirations and hopes, we actually do things in space and will deliver on our commitment to America’s journey to Mars. That’s what we get out of bed for.”
Flights to the International Space Station weren’t the only place where Musk took on Boeing. In 2014, he also took on United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, that had held a virtual monopoly on Pentagon launch contracts for nearly a decade.
Musk sued the Air Force for the right to compete for contracts, a risky move that annoyed some in the Pentagon. Musk also made a stink over the fact that the ULA used a rocket engine manufactured by Russia.
“Lockheed and Boeing are used to stomping on new companies, and they’ve certainly tried to stomp on us,” he said at the time. “I think we have a shot at prevailing. But we’re certainly a small up-and-comer going against giants.”
Ultimately, though, he settled with the Air Force, was able to compete and since then has won a handful of Pentagon launches.
More recently, Boeing and SpaceX sparred over the Commercial Crew Program when a NASA inspector general report found that the average cost of Boeing’s Starliner would be $90 million per astronaut, compared with $55 million a seat on SpaceX’s Dragon.
“This doesn’t seem right,” Musk wrote on Twitter, adding: “Meaning not fair that Boeing gets so much more for the same thing.”
Boeing pushed back hard against the report, saying, “It is a fact that our competitor received a contract years earlier to develop a cargo vehicle that later served as a the basis for their crew offering. Boeing did all the development under the Commercial Crew contract under a more compressed, shorter schedule.”
Recently, when NASA announced it had awarded a contract for $1.79 billion to Aerojet Rocketdyne for 18 RS-25 engines for the core stage of the massive Space Launch System rocket Boeing is building for NASA, Musk lamented the cost.
“SLS makes me feel sad,” he tweeted.
Last month, SpaceX notched another victory when it was chosen to be among the three companies awarded preliminary contracts to develop a spacecraft to land astronauts on the moon.
Boeing was not among them.
But when Boeing’s Starliner was in trouble after it reached space late last year, Musk’s tone was markedly different. Having suffered through several failed missions, he added a touch of empathy.
“Orbit is hard,” he tweeted. “Best wishes for landing & swift recovery to next mission.”