Former astronaut and SpaceX consultant on creating a new crewed spacecraft: ‘We were really the underdogs’

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For former NASA astronaut Garret Reisman, SpaceX’s May 27 launch of the company’s first human passengers to space is going to be a very personal moment. Reisman worked at SpaceX for years, helping the company win NASA contracts and overseeing operations of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft — both the new crewed version, and its predecessor, which brought cargo to the International Space Station.

Reisman left SpaceX in 2018 to become a professor at the University of Southern California, but he’s maintained contact with the company as a consultant. Soon, he’ll be watching when his friends, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, fly on the vehicle he helped develop at SpaceX. “When there’s somebody on there that I know — emotionally, psychologically it changes everything,” Reisman tells The Verge.

At the start of his journey with SpaceX, “We had a lot of competition from around the industry, and we had a little tiny team, and we were really the underdogs,“ Reisman says. Now, the company is set to be the first commercial venture to launch people to the International Space Station. He spoke to us about how he’s feeling ahead of the launch, and what it was like to work on the Commercial Crew Program.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

As an astronaut you’ve flown on the Space Shuttle, but during the time that you were flying in the 2000s, the commercial space industry was in a very different place than it was today. What inspired you to get involved with commercial space and SpaceX?

My real first exposure was when we were getting ready to launch on STS-132 in 2010. We had a delay because of rain, and the ground was too soggy for us to roll [Space Shuttle] Atlantis out to the pad. So we had this day off, which is like a miracle, and they asked us what we wanted to do. And we said, “Well, we heard about this company SpaceX, and we heard that they’re renovating this old launch pad over at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Can we go over and take a look?”

The whole crew went. We walked around that launch pad, and it suddenly hit me that this was a real, serious endeavor — that it wasn’t just a bunch of hobbyists. In a very short period of time, they had taken this old launch pad and completely converted it for a brand new rocket and were getting ready to launch in very short order. They were doing stuff in months that would have taken NASA, at the time, years.

Garrett Reisman (second from right) stands with his crew in Cape Canaveral, after landing STS-132
Image: NASA

I decided after we came back from that flight to check it out further, and I called up an old friend and colleague Ken Bowersox, who was working in Hawthorne for SpaceX. He gave me a tour around the Hawthorne facility, and I wanted to be a part of it. That’s why I made the decision that I really wanted to stop being an astronaut — which is a hard thing to do, because it’s a great gig — and to be part of this new industry.

What did you initially come on to do at SpaceX and how did you get involved with the Commercial Crew effort?

When I was first hired, I never even got a job description. It was actually really fortunate, because it changed on Day 1. I think my title was Safety and Mission Assurance Engineer — something completely generic and innocuous. It was just an excuse to get me in the door. On the very first day, like right after I got my badge, I got told that Elon wanted to meet me.

He says, “Hey, you know we just put in for a proposal for CCDev 2,” which was the second round of [development contracts for] NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. He says, “You know, we’re supposed to hear next month whether or not we won. If we win, I need somebody to run that program. Do you think you can do that?”

And I was like, “Sure! You know, how hard can that be?” Which was really stupid of me, because it was really hard, and I had no idea what I was getting into. I was so naive. And then a month later in April, we won the contract and we got off and running.

What were the struggles involved taking the cargo version of Dragon and turning it into a crew vehicle?

The intent to do that was there from the very beginning. The first [cargo] Dragon that ever went to space, which is still hanging above our mission control in Hawthorne, had windows on it. Obviously a bunch of toothpaste and food doesn’t need to look out the window. But the desire was there from the very beginning.

Reisman at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California
Image: SpaceX

There were also a lot of cultural challenges and certification challenges. With cargo, which was kind of an experiment, NASA was really focused just on one very narrow risk, which is the risk that once [Dragon] got to the space station, that we might damage it or cause some harm. So they scrutinized very carefully everything Dragon was going to do and every part of Dragon that affected its ability to operate safely around the space station. But the rest of it, they didn’t really care very much. The Falcon 9 [rocket], you know, it was up to the FAA to certify that we weren’t going to do anything really bad and hurt the uninvolved public. As far as the reliability of the rocket, NASA wasn’t really concerned about that.

They really just wanted to know if your “car” was going to dent the other car when it parked.

Yeah, as long you don’t dent my car, it’s okay!

But once you start talking about putting NASA astronauts on it, like we’re going to do, then everything changes. Now, it’s not just what the spacecraft does when it’s really close to the station, it’s the spacecraft, and the rocket, and the boat that picks the crew up, and the car that takes them to the launch pad — it’s what everything does. Because now we have to protect the safety of these astronauts from the moment they get turned over to SpaceX to the moment we turn them back over to NASA at the very end of the mission. So the scope of NASA scrutiny and certification went up several orders of magnitude.

We had to overcome some cultural differences. We were this Silicon Valley-type company with that kind of an ethos, and NASA was a government bureaucracy. They had different ways of looking at the world, and we needed these two organizations to really work together. It was a challenge in the beginning. I want to emphasize that we got there, and now NASA and SpaceX, as we get ready to launch Bob and Doug, it’s amazing to me to see how closely they’re working together and how well they communicate and get along. It’s come a long, long way, and it’s immensely gratifying to me to see that.

Did you feel like you kind of spoke NASA talk that helped to bridge that gap between the Silicon Valley culture and the NASA culture?

If I had a job description, you wouldn’t see it written in there, but really that was probably one of my most important and most challenging roles, was trying to bridge that gap. It’s why I’m saying I’m so gratified to see that we finally got there. I’m not taking all the credit by any means, because I left two years ago, and there’s been tremendous progress since then. But the contributions I made in that regard are something I’m pretty proud of.

I know that there’s been a lot of scrutiny on the parachutes — those have seen a lot of testing. Would you say those were the biggest hurdles to overcome, or were there other technical aspects that proved to be challenging?

We did end up doing a lot of parachute testing, and so that was a big focus. The Draco [engines] are the same, but everything else in that system, especially the SuperDraco thrusters — the tanks, the pressurization system, the plumbing, the valves — everything was a big step up in complexity.


The communication system — the antennas are totally different. The solar panels — we had deployable solar panels, now we have conformal mounted solar panels, so that was a big redesign. And the whole launch escape system — not just the SuperDracos — but the guidance, navigation, and control that goes along with that, and trying to figure out how to make that work and be as safe as possible. We have a nosecone on Dragon 2 that opens and closes that we didn’t have on Dragon 1. The docking system — there’s another one — we had to design and build our own docking system, because the one that NASA wanted to provide for us really required too much power. It was too heavy, and it was too expensive. So we decided to make our own and my hat’s off to the team that designed that, because that system is really very elegant, very simple, but very capable.

It sounds to me that Dragon 2, while it has some elements of Dragon 1, it’s almost a completely new vehicle.

Yes, though a lot of the lessons we learned, especially operating Dragon 1 were definitely incorporated into Dragon 2. So if we had to do Dragon 2 from a blank sheet of paper, it would have been a lot harder.

Being able to try things out with Dragon 1 was unbelievably valuable to us. It even extended to the life support systems, which you wouldn’t think of. I mean, why would a cargo vehicle need a life support system? Well, you still need to control the pressure inside this pressurized vehicle. And we did fly rodents for science experiments. That enabled us to actually test out components of the life support system we would use on Dragon 2, obviously in miniature scale.

What was it like at the company when there were failures trying to get to this point? Like with last year’s failure, what did those moments teach you and those at SpaceX as you were developing these vehicles?

I was no longer full time when we had that last failure, but I was a consultant, and I remember going in right after that happened. It really hit them pretty hard, because everybody’s viewing it through the prism of “we’re about to put people on this thing.” People started internalizing the gravity of what we’re about to do and how serious we need to be about safety and reliability of the vehicle.

What I told them was that we should look at that last accident we had during ground testing as a gift, because nobody got hurt, and we learned an extremely valuable lesson. We had a flaw in the design that was previously undetected. But now we know that it is there, and we can fix it. You know, we had flaws in the design of the Space Shuttle — two major flaws — and we had astronauts die before we fixed them. We had to learn those lessons about flaws in the vehicle that were potentially catastrophic in an extremely painful manner.

You’ve been so close to this program since day one, what is it like seeing it finally come to fruition after all this time?

It’s huge. I gave seven years of my life, working as hard as I could to try to get to this point. And now that it’s really happening, it’s unbelievably exciting and I think even more so, because I know Bob and Doug. On top of all my other involvement with this thing, I consider both of them my friends— especially Bob because we were graduate students at Caltech back before either one of us had even submitted an application to be an astronaut. Bob and I actually flew our first mission together on Endeavor. So we go way back, and Doug’s wife, Karen [Nyberg], was on the space station with me when she came up on STS-124.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (L) and Bob Behnken (R) training ahead of the SpaceX launch
Image: NASA

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a Space Shuttle launch with people inside whom I knew. I saw lots of Space Shuttle launches, but I never knew any of them. They were just people I’d seen on television or from afar. But when there’s somebody on there that I know — emotionally, psychologically it changes everything. And when you know somebody as well as I know Bob and Doug and having been involved in this effort for seven years, it’s gonna be really intense.

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