'It was a little Wild West early on': SpaceX's president says the rocket company's failures have prepared it to launch its first NASA astronauts


nasa astronauts bob behnken doug hurley spacex spacesuits crew dragon spaceship seats training demo2 demo 2

  • NASA’s is preparing to launch astronauts from American soil, with an American rocket and spaceship, for the first time in nearly a decade.
  • SpaceX plans to launch the astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, on May 27 through a Commercial Crew Program mission called Demo-2.
  • Gwynne Shotwell, the president and COO of SpaceX, told Business Insider the company has “grown up” enough to handle the task by learning from its failures throughout its 18-year history.
  • “I will start sleeping again when they when they’re back safely on the planet,” Shotwell said of the two veteran astronauts, whom she called “badass” pilots and dads.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

SpaceX, for the first time in the company’s 18-year history, is poised to rocket humans into space.

But the company wouldn’t have grown enough to be ready for the feat if not for its many failures, Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer, said Friday during a series of NASA press briefings.

“We’ve grown up,” Shotwell told Business Insider. “It was a little Wild West early on, but candidly I think that those beginnings and those roots are critically important to our success.”

The company joined pre-mission briefings to answer questions about Demo-2, SpaceX’s upcoming mission to launch NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley toward the International Space Station (ISS). The flight will be SpaceX’s first with passengers, who will pilot the company’s new Crew Dragon spaceship after launching atop a 23-story Falcon 9 rocket.

Demo-2 is currently planned for May 27 at 4:32 p.m. ET. On Friday, NASA officials said the backup launch day is May 30, and that the astronaut’s stay at the ISS may last for more than six months.

Shotwell joined the first virtual press conference with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and top members of the Commercial Crew Program Friday. The roughly $8 billion public-private partnership began in 2010 to eventually replace NASA’s space shuttle fleet, which was retired in July 2011. SpaceX won its first contract through the program in September 2014, though the company has officially worked with NASA since 2006.

“Hopefully, NASA has enjoyed the relationship as much as we have. We’ve learned from them. We’ve obviously been pleased by their financial support, their technical support, wisdom, and knowledge and helping us get to this day,” Shotwell told Ars Technica’s Eric Berger during the briefing. 

Shotwell said she joined SpaceX in 2002 as its chief salesperson, and always worked to keep a close relationship with NASA.

“I knew when I joined the team that NASA wanted to build a space transportation system that was reliable enough and low-cost enough for people to be able to go to other planets. That sounded very kind of outer-worldly to me at that time in 2002,” she said. “But I certainly understood that if we were to achieve that, we would certainly do that hand-in-hand with NASA. So I’ve seen this company grow from roughly 10 employees to the thousands that we have now.”

Yet along with that growth, Shotwell added, came a lot of failures, which the company has seen its fair share of primarily during tests but also operational missions.

‘The aerospace industry shies away from failure’

spacex falcon 9 crew dragon launch hangar

In 2015, SpaceX’s seventh space-station cargo resupply mission for NASA disintegrated late in its launch. The company also lost a commercial telecommunications satellite to a flawed pressure tank design when a Falcon 9 exploded during a launchpad test in September 2016.

Over the past two years, SpaceX also saw parachute issues and an explosive escape engine test on the ground, problems which both the company and NASA say they’ve resolved and closed.

“Even today, when we’re talking about flying people and flying other precious cargo as well, you have to learn those hard lessons,” Shotwell said. “I think sometimes the aerospace industry shies away from failure in the development phase. It looks bad, politically. It’s tough, and the media certainly makes a lot out of failures.”

But, she added, “the best way to learn is to push your systems to their limit, which includes your people, systems, and your processes, and learn where you’re weak and make things better.”

Kathy Lueders, who manages the Commercial Crew Program for NASA, said such lessons have not only been transferred from SpaceX but also learned in partnership with the company — and through disagreements with it.

“The best way to learn technically is to have a healthy tension and dynamic and be able to have to defend technical positions. And SpaceX makes us defend technical positions, as we make SpaceX technical positions,” Lueders said. “What that does is creates a body of work that I think we, as an agency, have really been able to build and I can tell you are building on [for] our future programs. So I think this has been a great relationship for the both of us over the last 13 years.”

‘I will start sleeping again when they when they’re back safely on the planet’

gwynne shotwell spacex president coo demo2 demo 2 press briefing heart here may 2020Personally, Shotwell said, she will not rest until Behnken and Hurley safely complete their mission.

“My heart is sitting right here, and I think it’s going to stay there until we get Bob and Doug safely back from the International Space Station,” She said, holding her finger up to her throat. “But between now and then, there’s still work to do. I’ve got thousands of SpaceX employees who are focused on this mission.”

Shotwell described Behnken and Hurley as “badass” test pilots and astronauts, but also dads and people. She noted that SpaceX employees put photos of the crew on electronic work orders for Crew Dragon to keep the stakes of their task front-and-center.

“I will start sleeping again when they when they’re back safely on the planet,” Shotwell told Marcia Dunn of the Associated Press. “I don’t think I need to remind my employees how important this is. They remind themselves, and they are helpful in reminding me.”

Behnken said during another press briefing that SpaceX’s agility has impressed him most about Crew Dragon’s development. He also indicated that the ability to work quickly gives him more confidence going into his historic flight — the first debut of a new human-rated spaceship since 1981.

“Doug and I flew on shuttle missions separated by a couple of years,” Behnken told Business Insider on Friday. “We [didn’t] get, probably, the same level of change that we can get in a month from the SpaceX team during the couple of years that was between our shuttle flights.”

He added: “I hope I don’t have to see it: That agility in response to an issue during our mission. But we’ve seen it during the development process, and I know they could execute it if we needed them to while we are in orbit.”

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