The following is an Excerpt of “Blue Dot: Book One”, by William J. Fiorilli
Copyrighted 2017 All Rights Reserved
In 2014, a privately owned company called SpaceX signed a contract with NASA to deliver supplies, and later astronauts, to the International Space Station (ISS). It was quite a good deal for both parties.
NASA, the undisputed leader of inner and outer space up to this point in human history, nevertheless had an enormous Achilles heel – an ideologically split government suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. The masters of NASA’s purse strings did not seem to understand that making speeches and promising the public bases on Mars was a poor substitute for providing the funding needed to make things like that happen. And it only got worse whenever NASA had a bit of a whoopsie, such as a dead astronaut showing up on the news again. Whenever this happened, you could forget about funding NASA for a few years while Congress got together and collectively rolled around on the bodies, fixing the blame and not worrying at all about the problem. This ongoing cycle led to a substantially reduced or haphazard budget from year to year. And this, in turn, led to the inevitable dissolution of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet, the workhorse (read: only horse) of their space delivery capacity. NASA had astronauts, interests, and investments in space – but no way to get there anymore. No way to even supply what was already there. NASA had become a five hundred pound gorilla with no legs.
SpaceX was a bright new company with an impressive origin story and a clever marketing team. They had a charismatic founder with a deep love of space, a growing fortune, and the nerve to follow through on lofty promises and daring ideas. They had made an important decision early on in their approach to all things in space – that they were going to keep reducing the average cost of delivering a pound of anything into orbit. When they began, the average price per pound that NASA budgeted for was around $43,000. It didn’t matter if you were delivering water, oxygen, or a case of dehydrated chicken cacciatore – you needed $43,000 to get it there. When SpaceX signed their contract with NASA, they promised to reduce this to $21,000 per pound, and they amazed everyone by actually succeeding. After another year, they were able to bring this figure all the way down to $7,000 per pound. They performed this budgetary feat by designing sections of their rockets to be reusable, and by pioneering software that actually piloted the spent stages back to the launching pad where it could be re-used, instead of forming an expensive artificial reef in the south Atlantic. NASA salivated over these projected cost savings and signed up in a heartbeat. It probably helped that there was no one else for them to go to. NASA’s government overlords barely let them speak to the Russians, who were supposed to be their partners in the ISS.
By 2018, the contract with NASA had been fulfilled with no major failures and only a few glitches. SpaceX had taken the money earned from this and other contracts, and poured it into new rocket design with lighter and lighter materials. They continued fabrication and refinement of their manned Dragon capsule and expanded their private launch facilities in the Mojave Desert. This led to SpaceX having even more capability, which they continued to sell to the highest available bidder. In addition to supplying the ISS, and a side job running an Uber for US astronauts, they launched communication satellites for smaller countries and science experiments for universities. They even had a few launches for marketing and commercial purposes, although the product launch of SpacePepsi was an easily forgotten debacle.
NASA and SpaceX, both thrilled with how things were going, quickly renewed the contract for another ten launches, and this new commitment was fulfilled in only a year. Everyone was happy.
But this was space, and space is hard.
In late 2020, President Trump was re-elected on essentially the same platform as before – promising to take everything that is bad and make it good. During the later stages of yet another raucous campaign, an important thing happened that affected the United States aspirations in space for decades to come – the President of the United States and the Director of NASA got into a public feud on Twitter. During the course of a few regrettably slow news cycles, their sniping back and forth over budgets and poorly conceived space policy degenerated into a brutal name-calling brawl. This did not paint the sitting President in a flattering light, and as so many had learned before, this was a cardinal sin.
The Director of NASA was very close to retirement and had taken this opportunity to air the many grievances of his employees over the years. He figured that the President couldn’t do much to stop him from getting these views out there, that they’d be amplified by his supporters in the Twitter-verse, and further cemented by his own reputation. He was mostly correct, but when the mainstream media spent two entire news cycles discussing one of the Director’s tweets – whether or not the President was a “black hole of evolutionary progress, where life actually developed backwards,” his fate was sealed.
After Trump’s second inauguration, he not only fired the NASA Director, he then ensured that a line of small print was inserted into a farm aid bill that took away his government pension, as well as half of NASA’s budget for the next four years. Another war in the Middle East was imminent by then, so the public’s attention was diverted and this shocking act of revenge mostly flew under the radar. The bill became a law, and NASA was publicly mugged for their wallet and cell phone just as their former Director was putting his house on the market to make ends meet.
The long list of problems that NASA had experienced up until now were suddenly unimportant. They needed to cut everything to the bone if they were going to survive. The Shuttles were long gone, but their ongoing investment into maintaining, supplying, and manning the International Space Station (ISS) was the most massive line item on their budget. And in terms of return on investment, every dollar they spent on the ISS actually produced a negative amount of return. At least with the Mars Rovers and the Deep Space Network, they received photos and videos that fascinated and engaged the public, which allowed for more research and investment in the next set of probes. Most of the public had forgotten completely about the ISS anyway, except when one of the astronauts would tweet a picture of the latest calamity on Earth, and what a huge smoking hole on the ground looked like from Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Not exactly inspiring stuff like new planets and stars being born. And since Trump had obviously labeled NASA as “bad,” sympathy for a bunch of scientists was hard to find in the 52% of the US population that supported their president no matter what.
At this point, the ISS was a thirty-year-old grid of metal and plastic and solar panels. The entire structure was heavily dinged up from the years spent in space, and would have lost a beauty contest days after its pieces were launched and bolted together. It was a freak – a large, ugly, expensive freak. And it was up there, circling the Earth every ninety minutes, producing absolutely nothing and costing NASA a fortune. The decision was made quickly by a newly assigned NASA Director. The ISS had to go. NASA had to pull out.
So NASA naturally called its new partner, SpaceX, yet again. Flush with millions of US government dollars and strong investors, SpaceX was happily building a very small space habitat of their own. They financed this project by bringing rich executives into orbit twice a week, so they could take selfies and tweet to their families over the course of a one-hour ride that never really obtained a true orbit. They were also launching lots of rockets, and about to send out a small cloud of microsats to the asteroid belt looking for mining candidates. Sometimes SpaceX used their Mojave Desert Spaceport to launch, other times they leased one of NASA’s historic launch pads. The Dragon Capsule 2.0 was on the drawing boards, and might be the first spacecraft to be 3D printed in its entirety (if they could ever get the large printers working). Simply put, SpaceX was very busy, with a bright future and the holiest of holy grails in their closet – stable funding.
NASA met with SpaceX and made them the offer. They had three or four manned slots on the ISS at any given time and were willing to lease all of them to SpaceX at a reasonable price. SpaceX could continue supplying the ISS, and could continue serving as an emergency backup in case evacuation of the station was required. NASA would wish them good luck dealing with the Russians at the other end of the station, would assist them with repairs if anything broke, and would continue to push their suppliers and contractors out of Florida and toward the Mojave Desert. NASA’s people said all of this with very straight faces, as if they couldn’t believe what a good deal they were offering.
SpaceX listened politely, nodded respectfully, and told NASA to get lost. They simply weren’t interested, not now and not ever. Why would they be? There was a toilet on the ISS that was 34 years old. One of the computers was pushing 40. A micrometeorite impact in 2018 had almost destroyed the entire complex. One launch out of every three supply runs had to be full of propellant, just to ensure the vast hulk could continue to correct its orbit and not plunge into the Pacific some night, thus embarrassing NASA even more.
SpaceX wondered, first in the meeting with NASA, and later in public through their own Twitter account, why anyone on Earth would be interested in such a deal. The ISS was the space equivalent of an old Victorian house in a bad part of town, with all the windows broken and bums living on the porch. They were a little busy building their Ferrari-like spacecraft and habitats, and playing with asteroids, to spend any time buying a fixer upper.
So SpaceX told NASA no, and less than a year later the very last American astronaut to fly in space vacated the ISS. He left in a perfectly comfortable seat on a SpaceX Dragon capsule, just aft of the garbage bins that it was really there to pick up.