Lessons from Space: Who’s Who, and Why it Matters

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I’m writing this blog series about what software engineers can learn from spaceflight. You can check out all the posts in the space series (as well as some other space-related code posts) right here.

Today we’ll talk about a couple of the organizations involved, how they fit together, and cults of personality.

You can check out all the posts in the space series (as well as some other posts about space-related code) right here.

The Dragon spacecraft atop the Falcon 9 rocket, image courtesy of SpaceX.
The Dragon spacecraft atop the Falcon 9 rocket, image courtesy of SpaceX.

What is CRS-20 and who is behind it?

CRS-20 is short for “SpaceX CRS-20.” These missions are specific to Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX), a private spaceflight company. The missions are contracted to SpaceX by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which is the federal agency responsible for aerospace research, aeronautics, and the civilian space program in the United States. NASA has also contracted CRS missions to other companies, like Cygnus.

The “CRS” in CRS-20 stands for cargo resupply. This craft will bring supplies (like food, personal effects, and MAGS—the astronaut acronym for diapers, essentially) to the International Space Station. It will also bring the supplies for astronauts to perform several experiments in microgravity on board the space station.

The “20” in CRS-20 denotes that this is the twentieth mission of its kind. The first of these missions, CRS-1, launched in 2012, and it was SpaceX’s first mission in its cargo resupply contract with NASA.

Before we move on, we need to debunk some myths.

Myth 1: SpaceX flies all of the space missions. No. Since the retirement of the U.S. Space Shuttle in 2011, all American astronauts have reached the International Space Station on a Russian-designed Soyuz spacecraft launched on top of a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Yes, the astronauts learn Russian to read the controls on the Soyuz). NASA pays the Russian state corporation Roscosmos somewhere between $80 million and $90 million for a seat on the Soyuz to send a NASA astronaut to space.

Myth 2: OK, well, SpaceX at least flies all of the U.S. space missions. Also no. SpaceX’s equivalent of the Soyuz spacecraft is called the Dragon. Whereas the Soyuz (left) looks sort of like a peanut, the Dragon (right) looks sort of like a gumdrop.

SpaceX’s equivalent of the Soyuz rocket is the Falcon 9. It has 9 engines (hence the 9 in the name), eight of which can compensate for one failure to guide a payload into proper orbit. The Falcon 9 propels the Dragon into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), about 250 miles above Earth’s surface, which is where the International Space Station lives.

LEO, where SpaceX craft are (so far) designed to go, is a very near-to-Earth band of space. When NASA launches, say, a Mars rover, that has to go well beyond LEO. The Mars rovers were manufactured by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Boeing, and Lockheed Martin. So not all launches in the U.S. are SpaceX rockets at the time of writing.

What makes the Falcon 9 and the Dragon a potentially preferable choice to Soyuz? 

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket can land and be reused. The Dragon craft can also be reused, though it’s not the first reusable spacecraft (that was the U.S. Space Shuttle). Neither the Soyuz craft nor the rocket can be reused. Since a launch costs between $150 million and $300 million, salvaging some of it goes a long way. Evidently SpaceX’s early estimates (before negotiating with NASA) put the price of human spaceflight on Crew Dragon at $55 million per astronaut—appreciably lower than $80-90 million on Soyuz. It’s also a lot lower than Boeing’s $90 million-per-seat estimate on its competing, theoretically reusable craft, the Starliner, which failed its first full test earlier this year.

Myth 3: The Falcon 9 rocket belongs to Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, who personally designed it, and whose genius is solely responsible for the revival of American spaceflight.

This is also a no. Sorry, Muskies.

If you’re shocked that anyone believes this myth, let me make you aware of Elon Musk’s notoriously zealous fan base. I’ll leave it to others to dissect how a tech billionaire accumulated a pop-star-esque following and whether there’s something unique going on, because this post is not about Elon. I’m not here to tell you Elon isn’t smart (I literally wrote a post about the smartness bubble), and I’m not even here to claim that he doesn’t do engineering work (his colleagues confirm that he does).

I’m here to say that a single, individual engineer does not design and manufacture a rocket. Do you know how many so-competent-it’s-almost-scary engineers are involved in a single space launch—let alone designing and building a rocket to be reused over several launches? I’ll give you a hint: a lot more than one. For goodness’ sake, at your very own job, you’ve witnessed that it takes three engineers to make a button blue. SpaceX isn’t Elon pushing a hot dog stand with schematics on it through Cape Canaveral. Elon himself credits a team of thousands in his interviews.

But based on the way Elon’s fans talk about him, you’d never guess it.

So let’s talk about cults of personality.

When I teach iOS Development at the University of Chicago, on the first night of lecture, I hold up an iPhone. “Anybody in the room have one of these?” Most of the class nods or grunts. “Flip it over. What does it say?” A few students pick at their iPhone cases, but the answer comes from the student (there’s always one) who never bothered to put a case on their phone.

“Designed by Apple in California.”

Comparisons abound between Apple and SpaceX (or Apple and Tesla, the other high-profile company where Elon is CEO). The companies have different products, but Elon’s following mimics that of Apple’s late CEO, Steve Jobs. We have a word in tech to describe this kind of following—Jobsian. 

The One Device spends a chapter on each major component of the iPhone, exploring the inspiration, the design history, and even the materials sourcing. Author Brian Merchant spoke to Apple’s buyout founders and early engineers. The stories they tell make something clear: Jobs had a vision, but…

  1. Not only did he rely on engineers to bring that vision to life…
  2. But also his vision didn’t even line up at first with what made the iPhone, the iPhone. He didn’t like the idea of the multi-touch screen…at first. He didn’t like the idea of individual apps…at first. Engineers launched campaigns within Apple to bring these ideas to life. They knew they had succeeded in convincing Jobs of something when they heard him claim that it was his idea all along. But the iPhone, and the Apple brand, draw from a collective effort.

We struggle, as a society, to envision collective accomplishments.

We tend to attribute major milestones to individual people—usually people who already have a lot of power. We discussed this phenomenon a little bit in our exploration of perfectionism as a product of white supremacy culture:

Little appreciation [is] expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed [is] usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway.

We tend to associate events with individual people, their personalities, their faces. We tell stories about characters, and we invest ourselves in their development. So when journalists and public informants want to tap into the power of stories, they start by finding an angle that focuses on a character.

A quirky, outspoken CEO makes a likely character angle for a company. We see this with Elon Musk and SpaceX, Steve Jobs and Apple, Richard Branson and Virgin, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, and to a lesser degree, Jack Dorsey and Twitter.

It happens a lot with historical achievements, too: we attribute discoveries from the collective work of many people to one person, and often to one date. It’s not because that’s how it happened. It’s because we often rely on a limited number of accounts to know how something went, and then we regurgitate the accounts as presumed fact. Those are the accounts of, usually, the rich and privileged, or widely popular among laypeople, whose stuff we managed to preserve and bothered to read. That doesn’t mean it’s accurate. And let’s be clear: sometimes it could be total windbagging.

The reason it’s so common with tech company figureheads might be a little bit different. My guess is that the relative newness of the consumer tech industry, plus investor enthusiasm to throw cash at tech companies, give us a relatively high prevalence of CEOs who didn’t spend decades working their way up through the ranks of a single company.

One skill that seasoned CEO types learn before they take the helms of banks, newspapers, and sports conglomerates is how to avoid attracting the wrong kind of attention. The less the people above them in the company focus on their personal lives, the lower the chance that their strong opinions or personal mistakes raise concern among people with the power to promote them. Eventually, as CEOs, they lean on that same skill set to maintain their standing with the board, the investors, and the customers. That’s not to say that they absolutely would incite a scandal by becoming a public personality, but rather, that the risk is higher if they do so, and they tend to avert that kind of risk. In tech, CEOs are less likely to have the value of laying low drummed into them for 35 years before they get to be in charge. Combine that with the glitziness of tech companies themselves as story arcs, and you have ample opportunities for cults of personality to emerge.

OK. So what?

Well, there are two potential problems here.

The first is the misattribution problem. If individual contributors resent the way their leadership receives credit for their work, they’ll avoid contributing until and unless the risk of misattribution is lower. Leadership can ameliorate this effect by acknowledging individuals privately within the organization or compensating them enough that they feel rewarded for accomplishments.

But then there’s the second, arguably graver problem. When we, outside the organization, accept at face value the idea that one person accomplished a huge feat, we forego the opportunity to learn how to accomplish huge feats. Because we cannot individually accomplish our way to a huge feat. Our highly individualist culture would have us believe that we can, but that’s not how it works. Sorry. Huge feats require coordinating the efforts of lots of people, in the right direction, at the right time.

Then how do we accomplish huge feats?

That’s a deep question, and this post is already 1700 words long. I don’t have all the answers; I don’t even have a cult of personality (or if I do, there’s only like 8 people in it).

I provide what few puzzle pieces I can, though. You’ll find them in the community section and the “Advance your Tech Career” sections of this blog.

And we’ll continue to talk about the team effort that enables a space launch (and what we can learn from that) in future posts.

If you liked this piece, you might also like:

This post on my entree into live coding (in case you’re interested in real-time programming demonstrations)

This series about Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs—in which I share what I learned in a week-long course on the classic book

The listening series—Unrelated to a specific programming problem, but hopefully useful 🙂

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