The giant that is SpaceX today had its origin… in a Russian engineer spitting on Elon Musk. Specifically, to his shoes. At least this is what Lori Garver, NASA’s second-in-command (2009-2013) during the Barack Obama administration, tells in her memoirs.
Garver wrote Escape Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age, published on June 21.
According to the former space chief, everything happened due to the clash of characters between the Russian (he did not give his name) and the North American delegation. Garver says Musk’s way of dressing offended the engineer at the meeting that was supposed to take place in 2001 (SpaceX was founded by the South African on March 14, 2002).
“If Helen of Troy had a face that launched a thousand ships”, Garver compares, alluding to the cause that ignited the Trojan War in ancient times, “This was the event that launched a thousand spaceships.”
One more version of the Russian spitting episode on Elon Musk
There is a second witness to the event, Jim Cantrell, co-founder of SpaceX. Cantrell delves further into the spitting episode.
In a documentary in May, Musk’s partner recounted, quoted by Tweak Town:
“(The lead designer of Roscosmos) he was getting really nervous while Elon was talking,” and subsequently “got tired of listening to him, spitting on our shoes.”
For Cantrell, the Russians interpreted the casual clothing that Musk chose for the meeting as “a sign of disrespect.” “They looked at us like we weren’t credible people,” adding, “I thought we were full of shit.”
After a push and pull between Musk and the Russians over rocket prices, the South African made the decision to withdraw from the meeting. He said he wouldn’t need to buy rockets if he made his own, and in less than 12 months he formed SpaceX.
The goal was to end dependence on rockets of Russian origin. And he did it.
Lori Garver vs. Bill Nelson, current NASA administrator
In his book, Garver attacks then-Senator Bill Nelson, current NASA administrator, for being against the commercial program that today revived the US aerospace agency.
“It’s not surprising that NASA’s new administrator remembers his history in a different way,” Garver notes. “The 79-year-old is doing his best to wrap himself in the Commercial Crew flag.”
For the former NASA executive, Nelson is “a lifelong politician, best known for his 1986 taxpayer-funded shuttle space trip.”
Garver always wanted private companies to have the opportunity to propose alternatives to NASA’s traditional approach, with Nelson putting obstacles in the way from the Senate. Today, the reality of the aerospace agency is that its alliance with SpaceX and other private companies has been key in the development of the current program.
At the time, when Musk made public comments that he could help fix NASA’s problems, Nelson yelled at Garver in a private meeting: “Put your son Elon in line,” according to a note written by POLITICO.
The misogynistic environment at the aerospace agency
The former NASA second-in-command also criticized the misogynistic environment at the agency.
“Many who did not agree with my views attacked me with vulgar language, gender, predation and physical threats”, going so far as to tell him that “she lacked sex, that she was a whore and that she was going through her period or suffering from menopause.”
“Fortunately,” Garver writes, “while dinosaurs devoured the last leaves in the treetops, furry mammals have continued to evolve.”