NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Hackler
Hawthorne, California – 16 January 2013
Hackler: Today is January 16, 2013. This oral history interview is
being conducted with Mike Horkachuck at the Headquarters of the Space
Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, in Hawthorne, California,
for the Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office History Project.
This interview is a continuation of the oral history conducted on
November 6, 2012. The interviewer is Rebecca Hackler, assisted by
We talked about the beginning of your working relationship with SpaceX
in the first interview, and we wanted to ask you a few follow-up questions.
The COTS [Commercial Orbital Transportation Services] Space Act Agreement
with RpK [Rocketplane Kistler] was terminated in October 2007. From
your office, was there ever any consideration to giving the remaining
funds to one of the runners up from the first competition, or even
giving those to SpaceX to help them further their vehicles faster?
I think we always wanted to maintain competition, so that was kind
of a driving principle in the whole project. There wasn’t that
much entertaining of giving it all to one participant. I’m trying
to remember what the rational was for opening the competition up again.
Probably because the scope had changed, and the dollars and the schedule
were tighter. It seemed like they were going to need to get some updated
proposals anyway, so in general it was just easier to open it up to
a full and open [competition].
From what I understand, SpaceX did compete in that second round, but
they weren’t awarded any additional funds. Were you aware of
that at all, or have any involvement?
I was busy managing the current contract and all the other unfunded
partners that we had. I was busy doing the work while they were off
in the bunker on that second round, holding down the fort.
Did you not have any involvement in the CCDev [Commercial Crew Development]
We heard from legal that as both the COTS office and the commercial
partners learned more about the Space Act Agreements and how to use
them, the proposal process evolved a little bit. I didn’t know
if you had heard any of that from your perspective?
No, not really.
Then later on, the budget for COTS was augmented with an additional
[Congressional] appropriation. Did you have any role in allocating
those funds, or helping define the milestones that were updated? I
think it was $128 million extra for each partner.
Yes, Congress authorized I think originally close to $300 million.
Then there were some taxes taken off the top of it, and they pulled
back some money. It eventually split out to $128 per partner. Then
I negotiated the milestones that we were going to add to the Space
Act Agreement with SpaceX. We did a lot of back and forth, and tried
to identify the critical areas in the program that it would make sense
to add additional work to. I think, quite frankly, that was a really
good idea by Congress. It was probably one of the oversight committees
that had been looking at NASA and the overall program that recommended
it to Congress. I don’t know if it was the NAC [NASA Advisory
Council] or one of the other ones.
For a development project like this, adding a large budget influx
is a great idea because you’ve started the project, you’re
starting to see how the contractor and the project is forming up,
where the strengths and weaknesses are in their development programs,
and you can start plugging holes in where there are big weaknesses.
In the case of SpaceX, we saw that they hadn’t been doing some
integrated testing. They hadn’t planned to do some things that
we typically would do, like integrated module EMI [Electromagnetic
Interference] testing and thermal vac [vacuum] testing.
We added those as new milestones under the augmentation money. Though
the thermal vac test came through pretty clean, we gained a lot of
data on how to operate the vehicle. They correlated their models,
which helped a lot with the thermal analysis. We didn’t find
any big surprises there. In the EMI testing, it turned out that there
were a couple of sensors that were very susceptible to EMI, and it
would’ve been a mission failure if we had flown in that condition
and not known about it. The EMI test caught that, and we ended up
standing down a couple of months to get those repaired. Delayed the
initial flight, but was well worth finding on the ground before we
got into space.
From your perspective, how did communicating with two NASA points
of contact work? SpaceX had to work with the ISS [International Space
Station] Program Office, and then through you in the COTS office.
Were there ever any issues in communication, or different styles of
working between those two areas?
Yes, I guess there probably were. There were different roles and responsibilities.
The Station was primarily making sure that when they got close to
the Space Station they were safe, and they met the Station interface
requirements. We were looking at it from the bigger picture of overall
mission success, getting it off the ground. Was the [launch] pad working,
was the rocket going to work, was the vehicle going to be able to
fly up close to Station?
Then the whole reentry and return was all part of our requirements
that was outside of what the Station requirements were. We had a much
different and bigger picture of things. There were certainly times
when I had to get in and influence how hard Station was pulling on
a particular requirement, and try to add a little bit of sanity to
meeting the letter of the law versus the overall intent. That was
partially because I had a lot of history on where some of the requirements
had come from in the past.
In the first interview, you talked a lot about SpaceX’s focus
on cost, which is not traditionally a NASA focus. And instead of designing
to the optimum first, you have something a little more robust, and
then you can optimize later as you understand how the vehicle works.
There are obviously advantages to that approach, but did it ever result
in any drawbacks that may have impacted the cost or risk later on?
I think the biggest drawback was late in the development we found
out that they had a weight problem, and it resulted in lack of total
performance of cargo to Space Station. They’re mitigating that
by upgrading the rocket. They’ve had plans to do an upgrade
to the rocket anyway, and once they’ve come up with the Falcon
9 1.1, supposedly all our major mass constraints are going to go away.
There’s some disadvantages. If you’re continually evolving
the design, it’s a real good way to go. If you’ve got
one shot at it, then you tend more toward the traditional NASA method
of doing a lot more analysis up front, and making sure you’ve
Are you also involved with the development of the 1.1?
That’s what I’m out here watching now, the development
of the 1.1. And there’s some big upgrades to the capsule itself
that are being done to accommodate more payloads. I’m primarily
overseeing and providing insight back to the CRS [Commercial Resupply
Services] office for those big changes.
SpaceX is a very well-publicized company. They get a lot of media
attention, and you also did some interviews with the media. Can you
talk about that experience, because I don’t imagine you were
trained for that as a NASA engineer. Especially when the second demonstration
flight was flying [C2+], there was a lot more focus in the public
The first one or two on camera got me a little bit nervous, but our
PAO [Public Affairs Office] folks coached me through what to typically
Was that the NASA PAO or from SpaceX?
NASA PAO. All the interviews were set up through NASA PAO. I think
they did a really good job giving me an idea of what I should talk
about, what I shouldn’t talk about, plus I had a lot of coaching
from Alan [J. Lindenmoyer, Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Manager]
on where political hot points might be. NASA PAO also did a good job
of not putting me in front of an antagonistic press audience that
was going to ask a bunch of not-so-fun questions. They did a good
job, I think. Overall I thought it was great experience.
On the first CRS flight, after they had demonstrated their capabilities
under COTS, there was the engine failure. Was that a concern for you,
or do you see that more as just a part of the development process
Anytime you lose an engine, it’s a concern. It was sort of two-fold.
During the actual launch it was hard to really tell that it happened,
because it happened fairly quickly and the rocket still ended up taking
the capsule to orbit. It proved Elon’s [Musk, SpaceX founder
and CEO (Chief Executive Officer)] initial claims that he had designed
this rocket with an engine-out capability. They literally proved that
That was kind of a pro to it, but anytime you have an engine failure
it means you’re going to have to go back and find out what went
wrong, because you don’t want multiple engine failures in the
future. There’s been an ongoing investigation that I’ve
been privy to looking into what the cause of the failure was, and
what we can do on the next mission to make sure that we don’t
have the same situation. In the future, the new rocket has new engines
that don’t seem to have the same failure mode.
You described SpaceX as a Skunk Works-type organization when you first
started working with them, but they have had to take on some more
bureaucratic processes as they’ve worked with NASA. How do you
see their trajectory, as far as the balance between maintaining innovation
and avoiding excessive overhead, versus having to have proper documentation?
I think it’s not just because of NASA. I think they’ve
been doing it as part of their evolving to a bigger production company.
They’ve been putting some of the processes in place that they
need to. Their new production manager put into place a process for
limiting changes, because he has to cut them into the production runs.
If you’re constantly changing the design, he can’t build
the vehicles. He’s forcing some of that just as a natural evolution,
which has been one of the big heartaches that CRS has had.
We were constantly changing the design to some degree. They needed
to be changed, but it meant that they had to do re-work on their analysis,
and re-work on some of the verification activities that they had done
to make sure that the vehicle was good to come close to Station. There
was a lot more work on the NASA side because of all the changes that
were going on. I think they’re being a little more conscious
about how many changes to push through, and recognizing which ones
are critical and which ones aren’t so critical to follow up
They’re putting into place a lot of general processes that you
would expect a bigger company to have in place. I think they’re
becoming more like a traditional aerospace company, because as you
get bigger you can’t just pop your head over the partition to
talk to your neighbor who’s doing the entire work on structures.
You have to have some controls and ways of doing business that communicate
information between a bigger organization.
I think they’re starting to become more of a big organization,
and I think some of the change in innovation will slow down a little
bit as a result of that, but they still have a lot of capabilities
by having engineering and manufacturing co-located. They can do a
lot of prototyping, and testing here without a lot of paperwork to
get approvals. They can still do some innovations, but it’s
definitely changing from where it was a few years back.
We heard from Pete [Peter] Capozzoli this morning that NASA is trusting
SpaceX on their delivery missions with more important cargo as it
goes on. Do you help with that at all, as far as determining the manifest
for what goes in the capsule, or making sure they have the capabilities
for live specimens?
Determining the manifest I don’t do. That’s all done back
in the Space Station Program Office. It’s driven by science
priorities, and other Station resupply priorities. I am helping with
some of the additional accommodations to be able to accommodate live
animals, because it’s a change to the module design, new development
work. They’re using some of my experience being able to develop
projects to help with that activity, and adding it into the vehicle
That’s got to be fun.
Yes. It’s nice working with the [NASA] Ames [Research Center,
Moffett Field, California] folks again, too. I originally started
with NASA up at Ames Research Center, working with some of their live
animal programs, and I’m getting connected back with a bunch
of folks that I used to work with 15, 20 years ago.
They have lots of expertise in that field
That was something that you mentioned at the beginning of your first
interview, looking at ways to get science samples back [from ISS].
Is that becoming more of a reality, that you can actually conduct
those experiments, thanks to the COTS program?
I think so. There was a gigantic program originally out of Ames to
build a two-and-a-half meter centrifuge that I’d worked on,
and a life sciences glove box, and animal and plant habitats. A lot
of that got shut down because the [Space] Shuttle was being retired,
and there was no way to be able to bring up all the supplies and the
live specimens and bring them back down again. The Russian vehicles
wouldn’t accommodate it, and there was no other return vehicles.
Logistically, you just couldn’t support that big program.
Now that we have SpaceX, there’s a capability to do at least
a limited amount of that work again, be able to bring them up, and
sometime in the future maybe to bring them back down again. It opens
up that whole field of science again that had been kind of in hibernation
for quite a while.
What other types of roles do you see opening up for commercial flight
as a result of this effort, since that was one of the goals of COTS
to open more commercial markets?
I don’t know. Personally, I don’t see a lot of commercial
science going on. I know SpaceX is talking about DragonLab, but my
experience has been that the science community doesn’t have
the budget in a lot of cases to be able to buy a launch. They’re
used to the free rides on the Space Shuttle. They had enough budget
to develop their science equipment, not to buy a ride.
Whether it was $20,000 a kilogram, or $10,000 a kilogram, or even
something less than that—you’re talking about a 50-, 70-,
100-pound locker, $10,000 a pound, that’s a big chunk of change.
They just never had in their budget, and I don’t see them having
budgets to buy launch capability in a lot of cases. They’re
used to the free rides. I don’t really see a market for DragonLab,
unless there’s some big tenant customer that buys the whole
flight, and then has extra capability that he gives away to some of
these smaller payloads.
I think in the long run, as they start developing a crewed vehicle,
I could see that there’ll be spin offs of the crewed vehicle
where they’re taking tourists up to space because there’s
some deeper pockets there to buy a ride. If some U.S. millionaires
or billionaires can spend $20 to $30 million with the Russians to
buy a ride, then there’s probably the potential market out there
for taking other people to space in U.S.-built vehicles. I’d
like to, in the long run, see that evolving to more of an airline
kind of transportation system, and maybe creating a whole market for
a whole industry in the United States.
We’ve talked about and heard from many people that the COTS
program was very successful in achieving its goal of helping commercial
companies develop these capabilities. Do you see any role for a COTS-type
program in the future? What other areas do you feel like it can be
That’s a great question. We’ve been trying to figure out
what to do in our office, and apply the model to other capabilities.
We talked a little bit about lunar comm, having a communications system
to provide the service of transferring comm. That hasn’t really
sunk in much. The other one that we’ve been talking with some
other parts of the Agency about is maybe a Mars transportation system,
to take science samples and do landers, pre-position some equipment
on Mars. I think that would be a great project, but I’m not
sure there’s budget in the Agency right now to support something
What kind of lessons learned would you share with anyone trying to
apply the COTS model in the future?
I think you have to do a lot of homework with the company, and make
sure that you can have a good working relationship, because there
are certainly some different controls that you have in the COTS model
than you had in the traditional contract. Having a good working relationship,
where it’s really a partnership, makes a big difference. Certainly
lots of advantages for the government in that you’re basically
in a fixed-price contract. You’re paying them for work that
gets done, not just continuing to spend on the cost-plus contract.
There’s built-in controls that limit that there won’t
be a cost overrun, basically.
You have to be flexible on schedule. A lot of times these guys are
going to be very optimistic on proposals of schedules, and as long
as they’re making good technical progress, I think you need
to be flexible when they start, later in the project, not meeting
milestones on the schedule that they were talking about. Stay focused
on the technical requirements, and that they’re meeting the
Be flexible on ways to do business. Sometimes ways that certain companies
do business can be a lot more cost effective, and be flexible to understand
their rationale, and how it may still meet the intent of what you
need makes a big difference.
From what we understand, you did and still do have an excellent working
relationship with the people here at SpaceX, and they’ve certainly
expressed how invaluable NASA’s help was as they were building
up their company and vehicles. I’m curious about what was unique
about working with SpaceX that might have been different from working
with one of the other commercial partners? Was there something about
SpaceX that attracted you to choose to work with them in the beginning,
or was that even your choice?
Yes, I guess it was a good part my choice. I like their innovative
style, and it just seemed like they were a more natural fit with my
management style. It was more of a working partnership than a more
traditional organization and management style than NASA was used to.
I was a better fit to be able to work cooperatively with them, than
what the other partner was at the time.
What was unique about working with them that you may not have had
the same experience working with another partner?
They were learning a lot, and receptive to learning from some of the
NASA technical experts. It gave me the ability to pull in folks that
I had known in the Agency, and let them pass on some of their knowledge
to SpaceX of things that work and things that didn’t work in
the past, and even go as far as to suggest ways of doing things, which
typically we wouldn’t do under a contract. I think it was good
for me, and it was good for a lot of the NASA experts to be able to
pass on some of their knowledge and wisdom over the years, and feel
like it was getting received and used to good purpose.
You did also mention in your first interview that some of the members
of the CATs [COTS] Advisory Teams didn’t fit as well with SpaceX’s
way of business. Did you ever observe any former NASA employees getting
hired on here that maybe didn’t work out because they had a
similar conflict in their organizational culture?
It seems like there may have been one or two, but I don’t remember
specifically. We didn’t get into a lot of the details of their
hiring and firing practices. What went on internal to SpaceX was kind
of their business, as long as it wasn’t affecting some of the
real key personnel. I think in some cases they probably hired people
because they had some of those processes and knowledge of ways of
doing business. Certainly some of their newer hires have brought some
of the history of here, and given them that experience base to learn
from and use the best parts of.
Thank you. I’d like to ask if Rebecca Wright has any questions.
I’ve got a couple. Going back to the experts—did you ever
ask anybody to weigh in and they just said, “No, I don’t
really want to have anything to do with the COTS model,” or,
“I don’t agree with this, so I don’t want to participate?”
Not that actually ended up helping the program. There were certainly
people throughout the Agency that didn’t necessarily like the
COTS model. When I got down to the technical experts, for the most
part all of them were happy to help, especially after I explain to
them how we were going to interact with SpaceX. A lot of them actually
would have preferred more interaction. We ended up limiting how much
activity there really was. They may have been a little frustrated
from that perspective, but when we got down to real technical issues
and problems, they were very helpful and very receptive.
I think in general, virtually everybody I know in NASA wants to do
a good job and make sure that NASA projects are successful. There
were some comments that had gotten to the press over the years, maybe
taken out of context. Some of the statements that Elon made that rubbed
some people the wrong way. I tried to explain what I thought the real
intent of some of those comments were, and they tend to get over it
and realize what was going on. They’ve generally been really
helpful, and enjoyed working with this company and passing on their
You definitely were able to build up a premiere working relationship,
building a true partnership. Is there a time when you were first starting
out in your role that there might have been a tipping point, when
you knew that they were listening to you as a part of the project
team? Tim Buzza mentioned that it wasn’t “us and them”
anymore, it was “we.”
It varied, I think, by relationship to some degree. Some of the engineers
that I worked with early on—like the previous lead for the Dragon,
I had a great working relationship right from the start because we
interacted a lot. I confided in him my concerns, and he explained
where he was coming from. It was an open relationship right from the
start, where we were trying to make sure we were doing the right thing.
Other organizations, it took time to get to know each other and work
Some of the earlier launches, Hans [Koenigsmann] and Tim tried to
keep a lot of things to their side, they didn’t want NASA’s
help. As they started getting more into it, and realizing they needed
to include us, it became easier. Especially when they had a main point
of contact for them to interact and bounce things off, and let me
go work it with the rest of the NASA organization. They saw me as
an advantage to them, as opposed to some roadblock in the way of them
getting to a decision that they needed to make. I think it just varied
with each organization, when it made more sense to open up and feel
like we were a part of the team.
You always felt like you could ask questions, that was kind of your
role. They may not answer, but you got to ask.
Right, right. I wasn’t too shy about asking questions. Sometimes
I’d just ask questions in a framework to make them think. Not
necessarily looking for an answer immediately, but let them go off
for a week or two and think about what I just talked about and maybe
they needed to change something. I didn’t necessarily force
it down on them, but it’s a seed.
They put themselves in a position that gave them an opportunity to
move forward in what they wanted to accomplish as a company, but there
was also some amount of pressure to succeed because this was a chance
and an opportunity that could lead them to more things. Did you feel,
in your position representing the COTS office in NASA’s new
way of doing business, some type of pressure to do everything you
could to see if this new way of formulating commercial work with a
federal agency would work?
I don’t know that I did that because it was a COTS model. I
did that just because it was my project, and I was going to make sure
my project worked. I think I brought that to every project I’ve
worked on. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that
I try to see where the potential problems are well in advance if possible,
and bring resources to bear there. Some other problem will probably
crop up that you didn’t foresee, but at least you were able
to take out a lot of the big ones early on. I was going to do that
regardless, whether it was some new model for the Agency or not. It
was a project to go do and make successful.
I just have one more. You’ve been with this project from the
beginning, and of course you’ve been with SpaceX when they had
a lot fewer employees than they have now. In your expert opinion,
explain the impact that this opportunity with NASA has afforded SpaceX.
I think we brought them up from being a little 100-man company, if
that, to what they are today. The vast majority of everything that
they’re doing today has been funded primarily by NASA and the
CRS contract, and then some of the follow-on NASA contracts. They’re
getting some amount of money from some of these commercial contracts,
but not big amounts of money that have changed the way they’re
I think the CRS contract has been a big anchor tenant for them, and
it’s kept them literally afloat for a couple years, between
the COTS program and the CRS Program. Early on, COTS was what was
keeping the lights on in the company. They’ve just evolved into
less of a hobby shop and more of a real aerospace company that’s
building production rockets.
I’ve been pretty impressed with some of the upgrades that they’ve
done to the facilities. Some of that was funded with some of that
augmentation money. We sprinkled around some of that money to upgrade
the production capabilities here, test facilities and launch site
facilities, because we knew we wanted to build a basic capability
from the COTS program to be able to support the CRS ongoing contract.
It will be interesting to see the next few years, how it goes.
You talked about the upgrade to the facilities. Did you exert a lot
of influence over that decision making process when they decided to
move and have everything under one big roof?
Oh, that was a long time ago. I think they did that on their own,
the move from El Segundo [California] to Hawthorne. Once they got
here though, I noticed problems that they had in the production of
the first few rockets and capsules, and kind of forced some of that
money to be spent on fixing problems in some of their production areas
that we had noticed on the first couple builds. We helped with an
additional friction stir welder, and some other production capabilities
here that are making a big difference to them being able to build
Before we close out today’s session, do you have any final thoughts
or reflections on your experience of working with SpaceX the last
six years that you’d like to share?
It’s just nice working with an energetic group of people that
want to do the right thing. I’m noticing a slight trend towards
wanting to have more of the requirements defined upfront, and if you
make a change, then we’re going to have to write a contract
change. They’re getting into the old, typical contractor mode,
and I’m a little worried that that’s going to sour some
of the relationships in the future.
It’s fair and it’s reasonable if they’re losing
money, but it also slows things down and makes it less efficient in
some ways. I hope they don’t go too far over into the typical
government-contractor relationship mode where it stifles a lot of
the innovation, and ability to go forward quickly and do the right
thing for the development program. In the big picture, they obviously
want to make things work. Their livelihood as a company depends on
them building rockets that work and are successful, and I wish them
all the best.
Thank you very much for taking the time to sit down with us a second
time today. It’s very much appreciated.
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