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How much work does NASA contract out?Most of it increasingly. We have become basically a contract monitoring organization. Not quite as much as the DOE.The ratio of civil servants to contractors on Centers (JPL is just about all contractors), is about 1:5–1:6.It used to be that NASA Center phone books could not print contractor names. It was government ink and signNow after all. Then, the phone books were allowed to print their names but something like a (C) would designate they were contractors and not civil servants. This also somewhat goes for government paid electrons for electric cars. Some of this is changing. Slowly.I started as a sub-concontactor (Ball Aerospace) for a contractor (JPL, which I became a Caltech employee), and then a civil servant (with a stint as a contractor monitor, a great job for my case).
How did Elon Musk approach NASA to get their first contract?After its initial fiasco and the learning curve of sending rockets into the space, SpaceX has dominated the commercial-launch market. Started in 2002, it sent its first rocket in the space in 2008, after 3 failed attempts and being on the verge of bankruptcy. In 2017, Spacex has launched 18 rockets, more than the US and the Europe combined.Majority of the space missions have humongous government funding and its backup and russia dominated the market. In the 1950s, 9 of the 20 Atlas launches were succesful . In 1960s, 9 out of 21 Soyuz were successful and 9 of 18 proton launches were successful (a Russian aerospace industry). In 1979, 3 of the 5 Ariane launches were successful (a French company). In 1991, only 5 of the first Pegasus launches succeeded. It was a project of Orbital ATK (An American aerospace and defense company).Before SpaceX, Russians dominated the aerospace and rocket business. But with cost-effectiveness brought by the Spacex, customers from US and worldwide got a cheaper option for sending satellites into outer space.Also, Elon Musk has tried to lobby in Washington . Here is a video of Musk explaining lobbying issue to NBC (Elon Musk: Biggest challenge is lobbying). Musk has also spent a lot of money on federal candidates divided evenly between Democrats and Republican.The comhbined effect of its success in safe launching, a cheaper alternative, and lobbying in the Congress resulted in SpaceX getting the contract from NASA.Earlier, there was too much dependency on Russians to get astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) and Russia gets around $70 million per astronaut for the trip. SpaceX is the new hope to avoid this expenditure.Apart from this, Musk has hired Gwynne Shotwell, the seventh employee of SpaceX. She is the VP of business development, and even in the days when SpaceX was struggling with launches, she had closed several deals with companies to launch their satellites in to the space. She played a key role in the negatiations.She was listed as 76th most powerful women in the world by forbes.Majority of the information is from the book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance and Tim Urban’s blog post on The Elon Musk Post Series - Wait But WhyFootnotes Atlas (rocket family) - Wikipedia Soyuz (rocket) - Wikipedia Proton (rocket family) - Wikipedia List of Ariane launches (1979–1989) - Wikipedia Pegasus (rocket) - Wikipedia Orbital ATK - Wikipedia Elon Musk - Wikipedia SpaceX CEO Musk comes to Washington to lobby for Obama's NASA strategy World's Most Powerful Women
How did Elon Musk build his first engineering team for SpaceX?The story goes that Elon got the idea for an greenhouse on Mars as a way to promote interest in science and tech and interest in space, and to increase public support for NASA. So he pursued buying a launcher to get one there. US and European launcher companies didn't take him seriously, and quoted prices beyond what his then fortune was. He considered buying Russian hardware, to the point of having taken trips to Russia and being investigated by our government (he's not a natural born citizen and buying missiles is a bit eyebrow raising)After that panned out he realised that the problem was not public interest level. Rather it was the cost of access. He founded SpaceX with the goal of reducing cost. I think colonizing Mars came later. His key hire was Tom Mueller, who supposedly has SpaceX employee number 001 (and Elon has 002... Gwynne Shotwell has 007, which messes with Elon no end I am sure...) I am not sure how they met, I think friends of friends introduced them. The story goes that Tom was a refugee from OldSpace and was building engines in his garage. Tom is VP of Propulsion Development, and helped secure some other key early hires.The rest is history.Dolly Singh may know more, I've asked her.PS I expect United Launch Alliance wishes they had taken his 100 mil (a substantial fraction of his fortune at the time) and launched his greenhouse... they and the rest of OldSpace are in the process of being disrupted... and how. SpaceX is now the competitor everyone else fears. Once they start reusing reliably, look out below, falling prices.
Do people at NASA tend to believe there are intelligent life forms out there?I enjoy the following thought experiment. Assume there are three intelligent species in the universe. Ours, and the one which evolved the day before we did, and the one which evolved the day after we did.It would be reasonable to assume, since it is a thought experiment, that the other two civilizations are one day behind and one day ahead of us. If it is also assumed that these three civilizations are roughly equally separated by space, then none of us could detect the other with our current technologies.My working hypothesis is that mankind may not be the first intelligence to have evolved in the Universe. The test of this hyposthesis is conceptually simple, but beyond our current capability, and perhaps beyond our theoretical capability, even in principle.The conceptually simple part would be to look for an older, other than human intelligence.One could devise an experiment simulating this universe, and analyze the simulation in all space and all time up to the simulated present. Early intelligence would leave behind physical artifacts that would decay because of entropy. Armed with a picture of what these artifacts would look like, one could then search for these artifacts in our light bubble. This just is not possible to do.Another type of experiment would be to devise an algorithm which always created RNA, but this would have to model or simulate the universe in time and space as well.A third way would be to keep a journal, and jot down whatever revelations one might have about intelligence; analyze those revelations; order them in time; see if there are smaller experiments which could test some of the revelations, and slowly build a model of how intelligence must evolve in the universe.Whew. Time for more coffee.
How can companies such as SpaceX make money?Musk's business plan for SpaceX is actually pretty sound; he's offering an alternative to government and military contractor programs for commercial launches such as satellites, as well as eventual manned trips to the ISS breaking the current Russian Soyuz monopoly. The Falcon 9 v1.1 already directly competes with the U.S. Atlas V and Delta IV programs, and fills a niche between the Ariane 4 and 5 of the ESA, all at signNowly lower costs per kilo to any of these programs. The big hurdle was establishing a track record for reliability; you don't launch a $68 million rocket a dozen times with a dummy payload just to show you can, but customers are fairly skittish about putting their milti-million-dollar satellite on your powder keg until you can demonstrate it will do the job. Falcon 9 has 13 launches with no loss-of-payload failures (EDIT: Falcon 9 recently suffered two LOP failures in consecutive launches, which has weakened support for the program), which for a single model compares quite favorably to other operational rockets in its class.Cost per kilo of this launch system is very competitive; The Falcon 9 1.1 currently runs about $4,110 per kilo to LEO if launched at max payload (a launch has a relatively fixed cost of about $68 million). The only orbital system that beats that is Ukraine's DNEPR, and that system has a minuscule payload capacity compared to the Falcon. The Ariane 5, Delta IV and Atlas V with which Falcon competes more closely on payload per launch are all in excess of $10,000/kilo, so Elon's got a pretty good advantage going if you as a launch customer can handle the slightly lower mass limit compared to the bigger Atlas Vs (most launches of this scale actually put several different satellites from different companies or other outfits into orbit, so the launch limit is rarely tested by any one component of the payload). SpaceX is working on manned launches using the Dragon capsule, and assuming they get the same cost per launch when human lives are at risk, they'll beat the Soyuz-FG both on max payload (by about double) and cost per kilo (by about $2000/kg).The Falcon Heavy expected to launch this year will have more payload to LEO than any rocket system in service, twice the Delta IV Heavy, and will be the best until either NASA or China get some proposed super-heavies off the drawing board (the SLS and Long March 9 respectively).
How did NASA come into being?NASA was created in 1958 out of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which had been founded all the way back in 1915. It was created by Congress, at President Eisenhower’s request, by the National Aeronautics and Space Act.The full story is here: Creation of NASA