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Innovation

Crew Dragon: Former project lead reveals stark differences between SpaceX and NASA

Astronaut Garrett Reisman, who helped develop SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule, also has experience of working with NASA.

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Can an astronaut tweak their own rocket? Yes, but it depends on who made it.

Garrett Reisman is someone with experience in two radically different space organizations. At NASA, he flew on three space shuttles across two trips to the International Space Station, one in 2008 (where Reisman arrived and returned on different shuttles) and one in 2010. In 2011 he joined SpaceX, where he helped develop the human-carrying Crew Dragon capsule that flew on the Inspiration4 mission.

Speaking with Inverse, Reisman explains that the two organizations are worlds apart when it comes to getting things done — where SpaceX likes to move fast and adjust on the go, NASA is far more cautious in its decision-making.

“[At SpaceX] we would make a decision in a single meeting that would take years to reach the same decision point at NASA,” he says.

This cultural difference is perhaps best exemplified by Reisman’s experience of trying to get a change to the space shuttle. NASA had a shuttle cockpit avionics upgrade program to tweak the vehicle’s information displays — but even then, the team was extremely limited.

Want to know more about Crew Dragon’s inception, SpaceX’s surprising spacesuits, and why failure was “not an option” for the Elon Musk-led company? Read the full interview with Garrett Reisman, only in MUSK READS+.

Reisman’s job was to develop a new way of doing procedures in case of, say, engine failure. These procedures used a physical paper guide, so astronauts had to flick to the correct page, identify the fault, and follow the instructions.

His improved method would use a tablet computer hooked up to the vehicle’s telemetry string. That way, instead of identifying the fault and flicking to the correct page, the tablet could locate the relevant issue and display the proper instructions.

“That immediately got shot down,” he says. “There was no budget to do all the testing, we can’t possibly do anything that complicated!”

NASA’s space shuttle could have done with an upgraded instruction manual.Shutterstock

Reisman had another idea. NASA printed the procedure guide in black and white. Could NASA print the manual in color to improve usability? He admitted that NASA might have to buy color printers, but wouldn’t it be worth it?

“[They said] ‘what if people are colorblind?’,” Reisman says. “I'm like, ‘well, you test all of us to make sure we're not colorblind as part of the selection criteria.’ They're like, ‘well, still, we can't do it.’”

Reisman ultimately managed to get one change of any substance into the procedure system. A lot of instructions had steps laid out with dashes to delineate the desired value. That could cause problems when the instruction read to “set temperature — 20,” as it could read as both 20 and minus 20.

“So I said, ‘instead of using a dashed cut, we use an arrow,’” he says. “And they said, ‘okay!’ That's the one thing I changed!”

Reisman once told the story to Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound. Yeager lamented the fact that the astronauts weren’t involved enough in the design and operation of hardware.

“I told him this whole story, and he just looked at me, and he said, ‘you sorry bastard!’” he says. “It was frustrations like that that helped precipitate the decision to go to SpaceX.”

SpaceX and NASA: Why is NASA so slow?

It’s important to note, Reisman explains, that NASA doesn’t work this way because it doesn’t want to move fast.

It’s because of two main reasons:

  1. Complicated supply chains: NASA has several contracts, suppliers with subcontractors, and complex supply chains. SpaceX sources more of its components in-house, which means it can make more changes without drawing the ire of third-party suppliers.
  2. Aversion to risk: SpaceX hosted a series of uncrewed flights before moving to the crewed stage. That meant it could test ideas like landing a Falcon 9 booster on a drone ship or returning a Starship to Earth before adding people. NASA did not have the same luxury — the first shuttle launch to space in 1981 sent up two astronauts. While NASA conducted a series of test shuttle launches before the first crewed mission, they did not go as far as space.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster landing on a drone ship.NASA/Getty Images

SpaceX didn’t start out with these benefits, Reisman explains. Instead, CEO Elon Musk initially started by visiting traditional aerospace suppliers for components. Musk took a “first principles” approach and asked why suppliers charged so much for something they could do in-house for a fraction of the cost.

Those cost savings ultimately developed SpaceX’s in-house approach, fostering a Silicon Valley-style fast-moving culture to prototyping.

This new approach has ultimately come to benefit NASA, too. The agency employed SpaceX to build the Crew Dragon to send astronauts to and from the ISS. In April 2021, it also announced it would use SpaceX’s under-development Starship as a lander for the Artemis crewed lunar missions.

As the new era of space travel brings in new companies with new ideas, it could ultimately benefit the entire industry.

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