Partnerships Build Spacecraft


It wasn’t the launch (or lack thereof) of SpaceX’s first American commercial crewed rocketed spacecraft on May 27th that got me giddy about the future of space travel and beyond. Launch Day was an exciting one for my family (people are actually getting launched into SPACE!), but it was an interview with SpaceX founder Elon Musk and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine that sent me flying over the moon. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself). I’m going to insert here that I know very little about spacecraft, so go easy on me if I get the shred the terminology.

Interspersed in the live stream of the launch preparations on NASA Live– fueling the spacecraft, readying the astronauts, the voices of mission control– was an interview with Musk and Bridenstine. Bridenstine’s passion about the public-private partnership of NASA and SpaceX was palpable:   

Here's what he said:

“NASA used to give the contractors the designs and the contractors would go and build it. [Now] we are not purchasing, owning, and operating the hardware.  We did not tell industry what to build; we gave them top-level requirements. We said, Here is the requirement for payload.  Here is the requirement for safety, and then we let the innovators–commercial industry, American commercial industry– innovate.  And they came up with solutions that had never been dreamed of before, and that’s the success of this program. We’re revolutionizing how we do space flight, and I think when we look into the future we’re going to see these models of doing business with public-private partnerships supply not just to low earth orbit–which is what we’re seeing today–but we’re taking this model to the moon and even on to mars.”

Did you catch that? “We did not tell the industry what to build; we gave them top-level requirements.”  The future of the public-private business model is creating partnerships. Why did this get me so excited? My answer is three-fold.

Hard Requirements Kill Innovation

Innovation in the government space can be an exceedingly tricky thing. The client wants to know what it’s going to get for its money before it buys it. Fair enough. They almost always want every little detail of the plan outlined ahead of time and want it delivered on schedule. Outlining hard requirements ahead of time can greatly hinder creativity and innovation. . If Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse. It’s been quoted a million times, and I’ve said it a million times myself, if Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.

Think instead of what NASA did. They gave SpaceX a $400,000,000 initial investment (apparently in spacecraft sums, 400 mil is an infinitesimal drop in the bucket) and high-level requirements. In return they got the first version of the Dragon spacecraft (the reusable Falcon 9 rocket AND the Dragon cargo capsule, which paved the way for the Crew Dragon capsule). Nobody was sure it could be done. Not even Musk himself. But they did it. The highly motivated and supremely talented folks at NASA and SpaceX partnered and innovated. Which brings me to my next two points: 

Partnerships Send Spacecraft into Space

The future is in public-private partnerships, like Bridenstine said. I’d like to emphatically state that partnership is tremendously important whether it’s a public-private, private-private, public-public, or simply human to human relationship. Partnerships exist between organizations and its external and internal customers. Partnerships also exist between teams and programs. It’s no longer acceptable to purchase a product (even within your own organization) and sit back and wait a few years for it to be delivered.

Now, the buyer should state the desired outcome to the program or the team or the private-sector company and be an active participant in the product delivery process. They should work with the teams doing the work–testing products, giving feedback, failing, pivoting, and embracing changing requirements– to innovate and create unimagined business value, and with any hope, under budget.

Here’s Bridenstine on the benefit of partnering with SpaceX:

“SpaceX brings a very unique capability to the mix that NASA has been lacking, quite frankly. SpaceX is really good at flying, and testing, even being willing to fail, then fix. Fly, test, fail, fix. They can reiterate that over and over and over again very fast… The willingness to fail is something NASA has lacked for a very long time, but it’s what enables SpaceX to move so fast, to rapidly iterate and improve. NASA has this history of qualifying every component and then every sub-component…and everything has to be perfect and go perfect on every launch, and that slows us down… SpaceX has been a great partner. Make no mistake, they have pushed NASA, but I hope NASA has also come along and pushed them in a way that is unique as well [to which Musk agreed]. This partnership has been fantastic.”

By the way, the innovative product being built doesn’t have to be a manned rocketed spacecraft. It could be a case tracking system or a financial budgeting system or as simple as a COTS document management system (I wrote this blog in Google Drive). Maybe the innovation is in the simplicity of quality, reusable code or in the way governance is built into a product or it’s a beautiful customer-centric user experience.

Fly, Test, Fly , Fix, Repeat

Bridenstine outlined exactly why the partnership with SpaceX is so important to NASA: SpaceX’s ability to fly, test, fail, fix, and rapidly iterate because they’re not bogged down by the need for perfection. They operate with an experimentation and continuous learning (beginner’s mindset)  mindset. It is the very essence of the company. You cannot have innovation without experimentation and failure.  But private-sector companies shouldn’t be the only ones that fly, test, fail, and fix. With a little–in some cases, a lot– of tweaking, the government can do that, too. Experiment. Build your vision, refine your need (the what), and give your delivery partners the space (I did it again) to be creative and innovate for the how.

If NASA and SpaceX can figure out how to launch human beings into space, a matter of life and death, by establishing relationships, setting high-level requirements that leave room for innovation, and creating a culture of failing fast and often, then your federal organization and its partners can figure it out how to deliver any kind of non-life-threatening amazing product. It’s mission critical (sorry, I’ll try to stop) that you are NOT AFRAID to fly, test, fail, and fix. You will eventually fly farther, faster, and with more grace.

So, be brave. Set your trajectory, and shoot for the moon. (That’s the last one. I swear.)

I’ll leave you with these words by Elon Musk:​

“This is a dream come true….something that I thought would ever actually happen.  If someone told me in 2002….that we’d be standing here with a rocketed spacecraft on Pad 39A, I would have thought, No way this could come true. I didn’t even dream this would come true. It’s a culmination of an incredible amount of work by SpaceX, NASA, and other partners…working incredibly hard to make this day happen.”

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