Is Elon Wernher’s heir?
Regardless of what NASA envisioned for COTS—indeed, regardless of what it had ever envisioned or accomplished under any program—the sum total of Congressional interest in NASA was always just ensuring a maximum of federal money goes into their district or state (and thereby, into their own campaign funds). So to their ears, COTS was simply another revenue stream that could go to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, or other established players under a slightly different operating scheme.
But a program that meant barely anything to Congress was taken up with enthusiasm by NASA as a way to modestly reduce the costs of one aspect of its program, and then “hijacked” by Elon Musk to radically and fundamentally alter the economics and pace of spaceflight. Every synergy he could find between NASA’s modest objectives and his own radical ones was exploited, driving the evolution of SpaceX technology and the rapid buildup of its infrastructure. No one saw him coming.
SpaceX’s conspicuous achievements only fed energy back into the system, driving NASA to become more ambitious, and the Congressional advocates of COTS to push forward with the commercial crew program. Only now were establishment forces in Congress beginning to raise eyebrows at SpaceX, but still did not yet see it as a threat. After all, transporting cargo was one thing, but surely crew flight was still over their weight class. This program, they assured themselves, would be a gimme for Boeing and/or Lockheed, and SpaceX would perhaps rise to a junior partner role in the system.
That confidence, however, quickly bled away as SpaceX continued to march forward with ever more drastic advances, offering prices far below a merely competitive advantage, and steadily developed hardware not even on the drawing board among the big prime contractors. Before these politicians knew it, and with the large-scale financial and technical assistance of NASA, a company they had barely heard of a few years ago was beginning to threaten the viability of long-established, multi-billion-dollar corporations with rock-solid Congressional relationships.
In a panic, the more powerful among them have repeatedly tried to scale back funding for commercial programs that would feed SpaceX, and sought to convince government agencies to throw roadblocks in its way in seeking additional contracts. But SpaceX’s popularity and political weight have grown even more quickly than its technical capabilities, and appears to be within a few years (at most) of transitioning from being an upstart to becoming simply the Program of Record.
Just as von Braun had originally hijacked a cruel, cynical weapon to pursue a dream of wonder and peace; as Korolev redirected the same dumb, unimaginative weapons program for his own people into achievements that will live in memory long after the name of the Soviet Union is long forgotten; and just as von Braun awakened a timid and pragmatic power to shoot for the Moon “because it is hard”; so it seems that soon — knock on wood — Elon Musk may have grown an afterthought commercial cargo-delivery program, one that sought merely to deliver junk to a space station at a slightly lower cost than before, into a revolution with no end, opening up the cosmos to humankind.
A very interesting, and I think insightful historical and political analysis.