NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Hackler
Hawthorne, California – 15 January 2013
[The opinions given in this transcript are the opinions of the
person interviewed and do not necessarily reflect the official opinions
Today is January 15, 2013. This oral history interview is being conducted
with Dr. Hans Koenigsmann at the Headquarters of the Space Exploration
Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, in Hawthorne, California, for the Commercial
Crew & Cargo Program Office History Project. Interviewer is Rebecca
Hackler, assisted by Rebecca Wright.
We read from your biography online that you were responsible for the
space technology division at the Zentrum für Angewandte Raumfahrttechnologie
und Mikrogravitation [ZARM] in Bremen [Germany] prior to coming to
California. Can you briefly describe your background before you moved
to California, and what motivated you to join SpaceX?
At ZARM, or the Center for Applied [Space Technology and] Microgravity,
I started as a young aerospace engineer, and worked on a satellite
project that was supposed to fly with the [Space] Shuttle. It was
called BremSat, and it flew on STS-60. This was the flight that the
Russian cosmonaut was on the Shuttle, [Sergei K.] Krikalev. The interesting
part is Charlie [Charles F.] Bolden [Jr., NASA Administrator] was
on that Shuttle too. He deployed BremSat. I actually talked to him
a couple months ago, and he remembered BremSat.
On BremSat I started as an attitude control engineer, because that’s
what I liked working on, guidance and control, attitude control. After
a while I became the Technical Program Manager, so I ran the technical
aspects of the program. We divided it between the technical and the
financial part. Today I would probably say Chief Engineer of the program,
but at the time it was called program management.
We launched the satellite on the Shuttle in ’94. It flew a year,
and we actually operated it for a year from that place. The place
was a really good research institute, associated with the University
of Bremen. Since I was employed there as a research assistant, I kind
of had to do my PhD [Doctor of Philosophy] in the end. Otherwise you
go other places and people ask, “What did you do seven years
at that university, and you don’t even have an advanced degree?”
I did my PhD, and then I worked a little bit with people from California.
They asked me at one point in time if I would like to come over for
two years, just on a visa. It was not SpaceX at the time, it was a
different company [Microcosm, Inc.]. I came over on the visa, and
it was more like an adventure, just checking out how this works. I
continued working on satellites, and my specialty was magnetic control,
using the earth’s magnetic field to control the satellite. I
actually worked with a lot of companies as a consultant from that
Two years became five years, the visa became a green card [U.S. permanent
residency], and eventually I ran across Elon Musk [SpaceX founder
and CEO (Chief Executive Officer)]. I think it was some rocket launch
in Mojave [California] where we met, and we just talked a little bit,
and then I invited him to my company at the time. We met, talked a
little bit about projects, and then I didn’t hear anything for
maybe a month or two. Then he called me up and asked if I’m
interested, and I was interested.
He came by my house for the interview, because we had no office, nothing.
We did the interview in my living room mostly, which I thought was
really ingenious because it tells you so much more if you go to somebody’s
house. You can look at the pictures, the books, everything. SpaceX
started right around the same time, and I was the fourth technical
employee of SpaceX. Since there were a couple other people that he
employed—pilot, driver, cook—I was technically their number
seven. I was in there pretty early.
It sounds like you experienced a lot of cultural changes. Not only
national cultures, but working at ZARM, then working with NASA, and
I must say the ZARM, the place in Germany, was actually not that different
from SpaceX in the early years. It was a research institute—young
people, we had good money for big projects, we did new stuff. It wasn’t
that different actually, and that’s kind of what I liked. Trying
to set a really high goal, and then march towards it and try to get
Do you feel like you used your experience from Germany in helping
found SpaceX, and set the organizational culture since it was so new?
Well I think I have a diverse background, and so yes, it certainly
it helped me. I think you’ve got to get used to working here
when you’re coming from some other place, but that’s just
natural. It’s nothing unusual there. My German accent helps
in presentations. Funny as it is, but I’ve used it. When I say,
“This will work,” it is more convincing than other accents
for some reason.
Before we delve into more specific questions, can you briefly describe
what your job is and how your responsibilities have evolved since
you started here in 2002?
When I started, I basically built up avionics. I was VP [Vice President]
of Avionics for the first four years, roughly that timeframe. I’m
actually not an avionics person; I don’t have a double-E [electrical
engineering] background. I’m an aerospace major, I’m more
of a systems person. I think eventually I ran out of steam on my knowledge
in avionics, but I did continue with Falcon 1 [rocket].
I was part of the launch team, and I worked more and more with Falcon
1. I became the Launch Chief Engineer, basically. The Launch Chief
Engineer is the person that works with the Launch Director on the
technical side—is this rocket okay to launch—and works
the operations. Basically responsible that the launch performs technically.
I did all of the Falcon 1 flights, the last three as Chief Engineer.
Then I did all Falcon 9 flights as Launch Chief Engineer since then.
I became VP of Mission Assurance a little over a year ago. To me it’s
somewhat transparent, because mission assurance is what I’m
trying to do as Launch Chief Engineer. I have some additional tasks
in terms of working with the customer and working with other groups
on the mission assurance side, but I still have the Launch Chief Engineer
position and I still do that. At every launch I go out a couple weeks
before, I work along with the team to make sure the vehicle is good
to go, the payload is good to go, and I’m there on launch day.
When did you first become aware that NASA wanted to solicit commercial
services, or cooperate with commercial companies to develop those
I don’t think I remember it exactly. Since I go out to these
launches, I disappear and then I come back and work a couple months
in the main office again. At that time, I do remember I spent a lot
of time in Kwajalein [Marshall Islands], where we launched Falcon
1. Those trips were always long. I was there for several weeks, and
it must have been in that time frame that it started.
We started working developing and designing Dragon before that; we
had an idea of what we wanted to fly in terms of a crew capsule. By
the time we started engaging with NASA, the name was a done deal on
our side, and many design features were complete. It was more like
we built towards that and they say, “Here’s an opportunity,”
and it was worth some adaptations to move this into something that
a real big customer actually wants.
It’s interesting because I don’t recall us analyzing the
situation and saying, “Look, the Shuttle goes away, there’s
no opportunity to launch astronauts from the U.S. at all.” This
was not what we did. From what I recall, it was the other way around.
We had something, and “Oh look, the Shuttle goes away, we can
use Dragon there too.” I know it’s sometimes misrepresented
that the rise of Dragon and the Shuttle going away coincide, but from
what I recall historically, that is not a correct statement. It was
indeed that by the time it was decided that the Shuttle will be retired,
Dragon as a design was already there.
Thank you for clarifying that. Were you involved at all in putting
together the proposal for the COTS [Commercial Orbital Transportation
If I was, very little and I don’t remember. It’s typically
not something I do. I may provide a couple pages to proposals, but
this is typically not my main job. I may have done a proofread or
something like that. I do remember that we worked on a big proposal,
and it was a big deal at the time. I can remember that, but I don’t
remember being actively involved.
Were you involved at all when NASA representatives came to conduct
the due diligence sessions?
Yes, I think I was. I do remember the due diligence on the crew [competition],
actually. That was where I was more involved. On this one [COTS] I
was more standing on the sidelines, basically still busy on Falcon
1 at the time. My line of work was typically at the end game. To give
you an idea, I look at this next vehicle, and I’m looking at
the next vehicle after that just barely. By the time we launched it
and it’s gone, then that’s when I look more closely on
the next vehicle. It’s focusing on the launch.
I found an article online where you were quoted as saying that the
Falcon 1 would use just your normal, off-the-shelf Ethernet bus instead
of developing specific space hardware. Can you talk a little bit about
that philosophy at SpaceX, and how you utilize that?
Yes, I think to some extent we still do that. We see if there’s
any other branches in engineering or technology that we can use, and
then we make an assessment. In order to fly this in space, you have
to make these changes or those changes and see if you can apply it.
I think actually it’s not as urgent as it used to be ten years
ago, but at that point in time I really felt that space technology
fell behind the rest of the world in terms of technology. In particular,
when you look at components, or radios—the bottom line is because
of the relatively long development times you have in space technology,
you don’t fly the latest stuff. You fly the stuff that was around
by the time you wrote the proposal.
The downside of that is obviously that you’re always five years
behind, maybe ten years behind, or even more. That is something that
we always wanted to avoid. We weren’t ashamed to look at other
places and look, “What are cars doing, what’s done in
cell phones, what’s the technology in batteries?” and
can we use that. I think that’s certainly a long-term healthier
approach than what has been done in the past, but at the same time
I believe we’re not the only ones doing this anymore.
Are there any other examples you can think of off the top of your
head besides the Ethernet bus, or anything used in the Falcon 9?
We used a flight computer that was basically what I called the ATM
[Automated Teller] Machine, a simple computer that is used for an
important task at the end of the day. We build a lot of components
now ourselves. The video camera, for example, is still a good old
video camera that you can buy. There’s probably a couple other
examples that we use from commercial technology, but it changed a
little bit in the sense that we don’t need to do this anymore.
We have our own components. We develop them, we tailor them more for
Let me give you an example. We had the deploy test for Dragon. Dragon
had this nose cone on top of it, and it deploys in flight. For the
deploy test, we just bought a children’s [inflatable] bouncer,
and we deployed the nosecone into the bouncer, and it worked fine.
That is something that I think is SpaceX.
To get the milestone payments from NASA under the terms of the Space
Act Agreement, you had to prove that all these components worked in
flight. Were you involved at all in the milestone reviews?
Yes, I was a little bit involved in the milestones to some extent.
The milestones were important, but they’re almost overly important
I would say. They were somewhat artificial at the end of the day.
There was a mark on the calendar, at this time these things have to
work. Whether this was actually the realistic development time or
not, it had to work at the time. It drove the company to prioritize
certain work related to milestones as the milestones came closer.
I guess overall that had an impact on the company, which on the good
side brought us closer to finishing Dragon on time, and on the bad
side may have cost us some extra work occasionally. Overall, I felt
that the milestones were almost religiously applied. I wish we would
have sat down halfway and said, “You know what, let’s
look at the milestones again. What makes sense here?”
We did this, in the end, on a very high level. If you remember, C2
and C3 [COTS demonstrations missions] were pooled together, and it
was our effort to say, “Look, this mission and that mission
are basically identical up to this point. Why don’t we combine
this?” It took some effort on our side to get this through NASA,
but we succeeded in the end, and we had certain conditions which we
complied with. Overall, I think it was a really good idea. We knew
this a year ahead of that request that if you look at the two missions,
you see they’re pretty much the same.
When you proposed the change to the milestones, did you feel that
NASA was fairly receptive to that? What was their reaction?
Actually, I don’t even know if combining the mission was a milestone.
It may have been more than one milestone, I don’t remember.
I wasn’t there when they proposed it. I believe I got a couple
comments from [William H.] Gerstenmaier [NASA Associate Administrator
for Human Exploration and Operations]. They were mostly favorable,
but skeptical to some extent, “Show us that you can do this.”
I think that’s fair. At the end of the day we combined the missions.
We had to show NASA that there was no downside on this.
There was also some additional funding that the COTS office was able
to get [fiscal year 2011 budget augmentation], and there were milestones
added to the agreements. Do you recall any involvement in that?
Not a lot, but I do recall that I thought it was really necessary.
When you propose these things, it’s a fairly large amount of
money that you deal with for a small company. But if this company
grows, and you look at the tasks, it was not a lot of money. It was
actually a small amount of money in the overall scheme of things.
I always felt that the adjustment was a fair adjustment.
You’re trying to project something over many years, and it’s
hard to hit the end goal from there. It’s nothing that I would
consider outrageous or unusual that you renegotiate this, and that’s
what happened in my opinion. We learned more, we know more now, we
had deep negotiations, and we realized we were a little bit short
on this and we need more time here, and we need to fix it in order
to save the effort. That’s what happened.
You talked about your work with the Falcon 1. That rocket had three
failed launch attempts before it successfully launched. Can you talk
about your experiences with that, what sort of effort you put in to
make the rocket successful, and meet the milestones and continue the
The first launch failure was heartbreaking, because we were 50, 60
people, maybe more. No more than 200, certainly. A lot of people worked
a long time. I spent probably three or four months on the launch site
in the middle of the Pacific [Ocean] for that. At the end, it didn’t
fly very far. We learned a lot of things we did wrong, and learning
After that, we looked at it and we decided to learn the lesson and
move on. We did this basically three times. The second time didn’t
feel anywhere as harsh as the first time. The vehicle actually flew
very far, and then didn’t make orbit, but at least it flew out
of sight. It’s a difference whether the rocket comes back and
hits the launch site and you collect debris, or that it goes away
and then disappears somewhere. It doesn’t make a difference
in the end, but for you personally it’s a different feeling.
In one case, you collect debris and it’s a sad day. In the other
case it’s still a sad day, but you’re not collecting debris.
On the third flight we were a little bit smarter. We had two vehicles
actually, so we knew that if something goes wrong we can do this quickly
again. Between the third and the fourth flight we changed one number,
nothing else. That was the time we needed to separate the two stages.
That was another important lesson learned, but I always thought organizations
go through this. NASA went through this. NASA had early beginnings
where they destroyed a couple rockets along the way, and that helped
NASA. Both the experience that comes with that, and I felt that we
did this independently on our own.
I don’t want to say we replicated exactly what NASA did in the’50s
and ’60s, but it had a little bit of that flavor. We built a
rocket, and then we realized that part does not work, and we have
to fix it over here. We did a lot of stuff on our own without anybody
telling us at the time. The first five years—what is the date
for the first COTS involvement?
The Space Act Agreement was signed in [August] 2006.
The first four or five years, we were on our own. We learned that
lesson on our own. There’s nothing better than learning lessons
on your own, because you really believe that, and you really know
why you’re doing this. You really know how to avoid it, and
it’s the truth that you learned along the way. From my perspective,
as bad as it looks losing three vehicles in a row, I feel like we
learned that lesson, and that’s what makes SpaceX these days.
Did you ever have a moment when you were afraid that NASA would terminate
the Space Act Agreement?
No, never. I never doubted NASA’s commitment. The fact that
I never doubted it didn’t mean that it couldn’t have happened,
of course. But I never got the sense, from Mike [Michael J.] Horkachuck
[NASA COTS Project Executive] and all the other folks, that this was
critical and we have to stop it, or we are on the brink of non-performance.
I never got that. I always thought we struggled to do our milestones,
but not in terms of performance, and not in terms of something that
would terminate that contract at all. I never had any doubts on that.
Maybe that was naïve.
Can you talk a little bit more about your relationship with the COTS
office, working with Mike, and the assistance that you go from NASA?
At the beginning, NASA was big and a little bit scary I would say
because of its size, organization. I had a little bit of experience
with JSC, but that was at a time when I was 25, and lots of things
changed since then. The COTS team was careful enough to develop a
relationship with the engineers, and to build this up slowly. I felt
in the end that Mike was just working with us. The fact that he was
a NASA employee—I don’t know, it wasn’t that big
a difference. I worked with him like somebody else at SpaceX, I felt
they integrated very well.
We also realized we were going through this with them, and they go
through this with us. It’s a partnership, and we’re both
in this. If we fail, they fail. If they fail, we fail. I think that
sense was definitely there when it came to my job at the launch site.
When everybody realized this comes down to pushing that button and
having that rocket go successfully all along—not just the rocket
with C1, but also the first [Falcon 9 launch] before that.
All these things are so critical for both their success and our success,
and making this all close in the end, that I would say it was a really
good and close relationship. I almost didn’t realize—the
COTS program ending and CRS [Commercial Resupply Services contract]
beginning, that’s the part that I almost missed. I wasn’t
really aware of the setup from NASA’s side at the time.
In your experience working with both the COTS office and the ISS [International
Space Station] Program Office, because the vehicle had to meet visiting
vehicle requirements—were there any differences working between
those two groups?
Yes, definitely. The ISS office has a primary objective, and that
is keeping the [International Space] Station alive and well. They
do need Dragon to transport things up and down, but that is only one
aspect of the Station. It’s not the main aspect. Versus on COTS,
the main object of that program was Dragon.
The ISS office, I’ve gotten more and more to do with them over
the last year, and I must say I’m impressed. It’s a huge
effort to keep this Station up and going, and the more I learn about
it the more interested I am actually. It’s certainly different.
It’s different from the COTS office in the sense that it’s
more engineering on the NASA side too. The relationship itself was
in the beginning slightly different, I would say. In the meantime,
it turns more into a working relationship where we work on supplying
What sorts of changes did you need to make to the vehicles in order
to meet those requirements?
I think it was early enough on the Dragon side to not be a change,
but rather maybe a cross-change in design. It wasn’t really
that we had to throw something out because we went to the Station.
I don’t think there was anything like that on the Dragon side
in terms of hardware. There were some changes more in the way we work,
how we document things, and in our processes.
For example, software in particular. I thought that was the biggest
change, how we process writing software. How we write software and
verify that the software works. On the Falcon 9 side, which was largely
my side, there were really not a lot of changes at all. I actually
don’t remember any actual changes based on that. It was more
of an insight, which also is a change.
Were there any changes that you made to the Falcon as a result of
the partnership with NASA? Not necessarily for the ISS, but maybe
if they had shared lessons learned from their past programs that you
were able to apply, or any insights that Mike had?
I do remember there were a couple things that we got help from NASA
with. At the time I was working on flight termination hardware. I
do remember that they helped us on a few specific problems that we
had with the range, and gave us some hints there. Partly it was documentation
that was harder to dig up from our side, that went back 20 or 30 years,
and partly it was information that we didn’t have access to
before. There was definitely help in certain areas that we wouldn’t
have had without them. It was certainly appreciated on our side, and
helped us get over certain problems.
We understand that one of the other federal agencies that was involved
was the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA]. Did they have anything
to do with your range safety, did you collaborate with them on that?
The FAA licenses us for the launch. Like they license an airplane
for passenger transport, they license rockets for launch. In order
to do that, you have to have range safety equipment on board, and
you have to have a certain trajectory, done the calculations, and
all these things they look at. They do look at it in a parallel effort
to what the ranges do at the same time. You compile the same data
package for both the range and the FAA, and then you get two approvals
back. It’s a strange process, but at the end of the day if you’ve
done that a couple times—and I’ve done it now maybe nine
times—it makes sense in the end.
The FAA is also transitioning. Globally, the commercial part on the
space industry is growing, so the role of the FAA is more and more
important as time goes on. I think we’ve pretty much worked
this out now. We know what to do with them, and we know how to get
the data and work with them to get licensed.
In working with the FAA and NASA, did either organization ever express
a specific safety concern, for example, that you had to address?
Oh, all the time. For example, when we flew the second C2/C3 mission,
or C2+ as we called it, we overflew Europe. When you overfly Europe,
there’s risks that something happens and debris comes down.
They do some calculations, and out comes the number that’s called
the expected casualty. That expected casualty has a certain upper
limit, you can go up to 100 people and that’s it. We had 120,
but we had 120 because our reliability was just following a prescribed
number from them. We couldn’t prove that we had a certain lower
reliability; we had to take their number.
The whole thing was just a paper game to some extent, but then we
still had to apply for a waiver, and it was one case where both the
range and the FAA actually said, “You need to fill out this
waiver.” There were plenty of similar situations. I don’t
feel that we ever did cause any public safety concern, in my opinion.
The ranges are really safe places. I mean there’s miles between
you and the rocket, it’s ten miles away from the next road where
people move up and down, there’s range safety equipment. I don’t
think anything could happen, but it certainly comes with due diligence
and some scrutiny.
Can you talk a little bit about how your operations have evolved as
a result of the partnership with NASA?
There’s always two ways to describe these things. You could
say you became more structured, or you could say you became more formal.
I see a little bit of that. I had a list of adverbs here. Systematic—I
think we’re a little bit more systematic now, we follow a process
when we develop things, we’re better in reviewing things. We’re
also a little bit slower, because we do review things, and it takes
more time to do this.
I felt that overall it forced us to work a little bit slower and be
more careful, and at the time it was probably a good thing. I don’t
think it completely transformed SpaceX at all. I think it just added
a different perspective. It added another branch to us where we say,
“Since we’re going to the Station, we have to verify that
everything’s okay and in order.” And we just do that as
part of the job now, something we would not have done, otherwise you
wouldn’t have gone to the Station. It did change us, but I don’t
think it changed us dramatically.
In May of last year, the C2+ mission was successful in demonstrating
capabilities to Station.
What was your feeling when that happened, to see all of your hard
work come to fruition?
It’s like climbing a hill or a mountain and being on top of
it. It was pretty good. The mission before that, the C1 mission, was
already flawless. I’ve done a lot of missions where little things
don’t work. That mission was really outstanding in so many aspects.
It was near perfect. C2 I was of course worried because it’s
a much more complex mission, and a lot more can go wrong along the
way. There were some little problems that we had to overcome, and
we worked it, and it worked beautifully. I was pretty thrilled.
That mission did one thing that we’ve never done before. Actually,
two things we’ve never done before: we launched at night, and
we launched on the second. We’ve never been able to do this.
Every mission before we had issues on the launch, delayed by an hour
here, an hour there, and it ended up at the end of the window typically.
That mission was just on the second, and worked beautifully. It was
You originally launched in the Pacific, and then moved the launch
site to Cape Canaveral [Air Force Station, Florida]. Can you talk
about the reasoning behind that decision, why it was first on Kwajalein
and then moved to the Cape?
We actually tried to launch from Vandenberg [Air Force Base, California]
originally. We gave up on that when we ran into trouble with our neighbor.
The range told us to wait until the other rocket launched, and we
said that’s not acceptable and went out to Kwajalein. In hindsight
I thought that was the right decision, because it’s a lot safer
in Kwajalein. There’s nobody around, there’s nothing you
You have a lot more freedom to test vehicles, and I think that’s
basically what we wanted to do. It’s far away from anybody else,
nobody knows where it is. Everything that happens at the Cape happens
in plain sight, and whether you put the rocket up or down, you read
about it on the website ten minutes later. That’s not the case
in Kwajalein, there’s really not a lot of that. I think it’s
a good sandbox to learn, and to work this out.
I still believe it’s a good launch site, because it is so close
to the equator. That was the other reason we went there. We had a
payload at the time that required us to get closer to the equator,
and that launch site was right at the right spot for that. Certain
payloads you can’t easily do from the Cape. It’s harder
to do this, and it’s easier to do this from Kwajalein.
One of the downsides of Kwajalein is that you have to get stuff there,
and it takes four weeks to do this. Everything that’s bigger
than what you can take on an airplane just takes time, and it’s
expensive to bring it there, and I think bringing Falcon 9 there,
or a vehicle of that size, would have been very difficult. By the
time we went to Falcon 9 and Dragon, we had to go on a big national
range and launch from there. In particular, since NASA was our customer,
there was never any discussion. It’s going to be from the Cape
and that’s it, because that’s where the customer is.
You said that you were out in the Pacific for months at a time during
the Falcon 1 development. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences
out there? It seems like such an interesting location.
It’s a lot of work. We lived in Kwajalein, but we worked in
Omelek [Island], so we would take the boat. My commute was pretty
much like here, 20 miles, but the boat is a little bit slower than
the car, even in traffic. One of the things that we found is when
you take a boat to work and then you take the boat back, you actually
talk. The team is very well aligned, because everybody on the team
is in the same boat. One effect was that the team itself was a really
Everybody knew each other, and we basically lived together and worked
together. There were not a lot of distractions there, there’s
not a lot you can do. You can dive or swim or do something in the
water, and that’s it pretty much. I’m not a fisher, but
I do like diving, so I did a lot of diving. But that’s pretty
much all you can do. It gets old after a while, but it is truly a
strange place. It’s the middle of the ocean, and you’re
just a tiny little speck in that whole pot of water there. I liked
At this point I’d like to ask Rebecca Wright if she has any
I’m curious—working with NASA in this capacity, as VP
of Mission Assurance, what types of challenges did you encounter?
I work with NASA [Office of Safety and] Mission Assurance, I work
with other NASA organizations, and there are more cultural differences
than between us and the ISS office for example. We’ve had an
opportunity to grow together with the ISS office and get over those
cultural differences, but when I walk into any different NASA organization,
then I have to start again basically. That’s something I always
need to consider.
It’s a really simple thing sometimes. I read the NASA document,
and it’s so full of acronyms I can’t understand it. I
go, “I have no idea what that means,” and I’m working
in the same area. It’s really frustrating. Elon recognizes those
critical issues. If you want to communicate, you must avoid acronyms,
or you can’t communicate. In my opinion, that is something that
I always have trouble with when I talk to other organizations within
NASA. Not within SpaceX, because those people know that you’re
not supposed to use acronyms.
Then of course, we work relatively hard here, and our private lives
are not as important. Job comes first, and then we play hard and we
work harder. That’s not always the case in other places. For
other contractors or government organizations, you have to consider
that there’s no way to call them after Friday 3:00 p.m. There’s
a lot going on here on Friday at 7:00 p.m. at SpaceX.
You were, as you mentioned earlier, depending how you count it, the
fourth or seventh employee of SpaceX. You’ve been here all through
its growing stages. What kind of impact did this COTS proposal have
on SpaceX and its future?
I would say definitely it was essential. It enabled us to do something
that we would not have been able to do for a long time otherwise.
Again, I really believe it was not the strategy, that we did not sit
around the table and strategize. I think it was either coincidence
or just a good nose, but it allowed us to step up to the same level
as any other aerospace company in one big step.
If you think about this, from 2008 flying Falcon 1, and launching
payloads and going through this learning process, then the next step
is docking at the Station basically. That is a huge step. I have friends
working this in Europe on ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle], and they
were almost jealous that we would just take these big steps. Not do
any of the other things, we would just go straight to the Station.
Now it looks pretty natural, but at the time I don’t think it
It was certainly a risk for the COTS office. I really must say, the
COTS office took a risk. There’s no other word for it. It was
a calculated risk, and I think it paid off. All things considered,
not all organizations do that. Even NASA doesn’t do that a lot.
NASA is not necessarily taking a lot of calculated risk. This particular
office certainly did, and I really think it paid off big time.
Do you consider it was also a risk for SpaceX to enter into that agreement?
Yes, it was a risk in terms of you become what you eat a little bit,
that you would turn into a little NASA. I don’t think that happened,
frankly. I think we kept the culture, we kept what makes SpaceX a
great place to work. Different from NASA, but perfectly capable to
work with NASA and to do things like service to the Space Station.
At the same time, we also worked with the Air Force, we worked with
commercial customers, and worked with a lot of other customers. That’s
one of those things that we need to keep, preserve the ability to
work with other customers at the same time. Other customers want other
things. It’s certainly different to work with the Air Force,
Navy, commercial customers, and NASA. It’s a little bit of adjustment
You were talking about the other customers that you also work with
at SpaceX, and one of the goals of COTS was to open up commercial
space transportation markets. Do you see a lot of those opening up,
or are there any that you have been able to open up as a result of
your work with COTS?
I think we’re halfway there. There’s a step missing. You
open up commercial space to people that have a Space Station in orbit,
but there’s really not too many. That business is probably limited
to the ISS as long as Dragon remains the way it is. However, if you
put people in I think that’s a game changer. I think that certainly
allows you to possibly have a commercial space station out there.
I think that it also questioned a little bit how we did aerospace
over the last let’s say, 20, 30 years. People are now more comfortable
with a commercial service, which I think is a good thing. Competition
is a good thing. It will drive the cost down sooner or later, and
it will certainly allow us to have more aerospace than before, which
is a good thing in my eyes.
All right, thank you very much for your time this afternoon.
to JSC Oral History Website