Here’s how much we depended on Russians for our ISS trips.

SpaceX may be everyone’s favorite rocket fuel company, but the whole concept of paying private startups to send American astronauts into space, a company founded by Elon Musk 20 years ago, was first conceived by the Obama administration. It was much less famous around Washington.

“NASA was reluctant to hand it over to the private sector.” Laurie Garber(Opens in a new window)From 2009 to 2013, the Space Agency’s deputy director said in a lecture on Thursday. Ars Frontier(Opens in a new window)Conference hosted by the technology news site Ars Technica.

During her tenure, NASA and Congress accepted NASA to pay private companies to transport cargo to the International Space Station. But Garver, author of the forthcoming book, outsourced crew transportation was different. Gravity Escape: My Quest to Change NASA and Start a New Space Age(Opens in a new window).

“It wasn’t popular,” she told Eric Berger, who is responsible for spaceflight at Ars and wrote the following article. books(Opens in a new window) It gives a good overview of SpaceX’s backstory. One reason for the dissatisfaction was NASA’s ambition to go beyond traditional, reliable aerospace contractors that have done well with traditional “cost plus” procurement.

“Companies are paid at any point in time of delivery and can add more at any time. Typically, these programs double the cost and schedule,” Garver said.

A good example: Constellation, NASA’s attempt to develop a successor to the Space Shuttle. In May 2011, a year before the shuttle’s last launch, Constellation had already bizarrely delayed and over budgeted, canceled its program and bids a private company to take astronauts to the ISS.

“Congress was outraged,” Garver said.

But Congress, one of the traditional aerospace contractors, Boeing, won(Opens in a new window) One of the first commercial flight attendant contracts. “Boeing’s participation in the commercial flight attendant program meant they had a lot more support in Congress, because they have a very strong lobbying program,” she said.

But NASA still has Congress compulsion(Opens in a new window) While it awards a single crew member contract to a company, agencies have paid increasingly higher prices to get Russia to get astronauts to and from the ISS aboard the Soyuz spacecraft.

“We didn’t want to choose just one supplier,” she told Berger. “If we had to choose one, I bet it would be Boeing.”

2014 Boeing and SpaceX each won(Opens in a new window) Crew contract of carriage. However, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft returned the human spacecraft to U.S. soil in May 2020, and has since sent four NASA crew members and two private missions to the ISS, but Boeing has yet to send a Starliner capsule to the station.

Instead, after one failed test mission and several subsequent delays, the unmanned Starliner flight to the ISS has now begun. Coming May 19th(Opens in a new window).

Berger asked Garber if it wouldn’t be a problem to entrust US spaceflight to starry-eyed billionaires like Musk and Jeff Bezos. His Blue Origin company represents SpaceX’s most ambitious competitor. Garver nodded at the alternatives we would have stuck with if history had turned the other way. “It’s risky, but it’s less risky than going with the Russians,” she said.

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