Shuttle Returns and Harrison Schmitt Speaks Out

July 31, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

The space shuttle wraps up its 16-day mission today and returns to earth after conducting 5 space walks outside the International Space Station to deliver and install fresh batteries, large spare parts and a “porch” for what is now the station’s largest component, Japan’s Kibo science lab. The Porch, as it is called, is a large platform on which outdoor experiments will be conducted. One of the space walks was cut short when a canister that removes carbon dioxide from Christopher Cassidy’s suit failed to keep up with his eager, fast pace, forcing he and fellow space walker David Wolf to end their work half an hour early.

Shuttle and crew left the Station and their Expedition 20 crew mates on Wednesday but remained in orbit until this morning so that they could deploy two, small satellites then begin packing up and inspecting the orbiter’s outer shield for damage, as well as checking out its flight control systems and thruster jets in preparation for reentry.

The mission set a record for the most people in space, simultaneously: 7 space shuttle joined 6 Station crew members for a total of 13 astronauts!

On Tuesday, members of the Augustine Committee stated unanimously that the International Space Station should be continued beyond 2016 when current plans call for it to be decommissioned and de-orbited into the ocean. It’s difficult to imagine a more sickening waist of the proverbial blood, sweat and tears than if those plans were to be carried out. The Station has endured a never-ending train of short-sighted nay-sayers, budget cuts and delays to get to this point. To end its life after only 6 years of useful service would be foolish, to say the very least. What is desperately lacking for the establishment of a large-scale human presence in space is infrastructure, and the ISS could serve as the corner stone from which future growth could expand. The very last thing we should desire is to throw away such a hard-won foot hold in space so close to earth. The fact that the Augustine Committee has resoundingly endorsed the idea of keeping it is a much needed breath of fresh air amid a flurry of stagnant and lifeless ideas like continuing shuttle flights at the expense of going forward with flights to the moon or bypassing the moon altogether.

And speaking of going back to the moon, I spoke to you during the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing back on the 20th about the great importance the moon holds for humanity in igniting a space-based economy and I also told you about the most outspoken opponent to current plans to return to the moon like Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Buzz believes the moon is, as he puts it, a “dead end.” I couldn’t disagree more, and neither could Apollo 17 astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt. Like me, astronaut Schmitt believes that the moon is an ideal place for commerce and for homesteading. In a letter to the editor published yesterday in the Washington Post, he said

My fellow Apollo astronaut and lunar module pilot, Buzz Aldrin, favors Mars over the moon ["Time to Boldly Go Once More," op-ed, July 16]. His vision for space policy, however, requires clear thinking instead of just “bold thinking,” and Mr. Aldrin missed on several points.
The moon is hardly a “dead end.” If that were true, China and other countries would not be so interested. Rather than being “a poor location for homesteading,” the moon is ideal for that purpose. Its soils provide resources necessary to support settlements, including an economic base of exports of helium-3 as a potential fusion fuel.
The fact that the “moon is a lifeless, barren world” means that it is the only place with a scientific record of the early history of the solar system.
Returning to the moon gives the fastest path to Mars. Without lunar water resources, radiation protection may not be feasible. Without lunar operational experience, risk on early Martian flights greatly increases.
Without lunar oxygen and water, payloads to Mars may be prohibitively large. Without lunar rocket fuel resources, we might not be able to even land on Mars.

Harrison and I are not the only two who feel that the moon should be our next destination. Despite the fact that there are a few voices out there who see the opportunity to resurrect the Mars-first argument after it was defeated by a majority of scientists and engineers recommending we go to the moon next, most professionals in the space field still agree that the moon is by far the most logical next step.

NASA is already working on lunar strategies and the space systems we’ll need once we get there. On Monday, The Technology Review published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported that, “NASA has developed a robotic device that can help astronauts live and work on the moon and eventually Mars.” It’s a new robotic arm called the Lunar Surface Manipulator System, and it’s capable of lending a “helping hand for astronauts living and working on the moon. It could, for example, move large payloads and precisely position scientific experiments.” This is very exciting news. Already, we’re making strides towards fulfilling the Vision For Space Exploration. “The manipulator did everything we wanted it to, from lifting large simulated airlocks and habitats to more delicate tasks, such as precisely positioning scientific payloads,” said John Dorsey, a senior aerospace engineer at Langley Research Center where the LSMS was built and is being tested. The robotic arm could carry loads between 100 to 3,000 kilograms (200 pounds to over 3 and a half tons).

Jonathan Goff, an engineer with Masten Space Systems in Santa Clara, California presented a white paper to the Augustine Committee in which he suggests establishing a series of orbiting fuel depots to help rockets get to the moon and beyond. It’s a very good idea, though not a new one. In his book titled Space: What Now (Publish America, 2005, Baltimore: 310 pages), author and astronautics professional Tom Hill explores this very idea. He says, “Orbital supply depots provide a practical solution for enabling frequent commercial access to low earth orbit.” Such stations can act as orbiting gas stations, helping to enable smaller and less expensive vehicles to lift payloads to their destinations. In addition, they serve as elements of – your guest it – orbiting infrastructure. In the interest of full disclosure, Tom is a friend and colleague of mine, but his ideas are fresh and I can enthusiastically recommend his book.

We’re making tangible progress towards earth orbit, the moon and the untold opportunities they will deliver if we don’t lose our focus and determination. With a public/private partnership like that developing as a consequence of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract (COTS) between NASA and Hawthorne, CA-based SpaceX (who, incidentally, just announced the successful completion of qualification testing for human rating their powerful Falcon 9′s launch vehicle first stage tank and interstage) for the delivery of cargo and possibly crew to the International Space Station, as well as others that are likely to develop in such a positive environment, we stand to realize our dreams of space travel for the common man… today. Let’s not blow the most brilliant and worthwhile opportunity in human history by changing horses in mid stream.


Blue Collar Astronauts and XCOR Begins Testing Lynx

July 27, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

In the civil human space flight sector, they turn astronauts into electricians, plumbers, mechanics or whoever else is needed. This is because theirs is a research and development field. But with commercial space flight there will — by necessity — come a change of paradigm. We’ll witness hundreds, even thousands of people going into space to live and work, pursuing the limitless opportunities that space has to offer. And instead of turning astronauts into electricians, we’ll see electricians becoming astronauts. For human space flight on a large scale to become viable, the cost must be minimized. This means a more conventional approach to human resources.

If you’ve been reading SpaceTalkNOW or listening to my Podcasts, you’ve heard me talk about the economics of space flight. I’m neither a professional economist nor a professor of the subject, but history has shown time and again that such pursuits always come down to currency. It’s one of the reasons why prizes have been so instrumental in getting new technology ventures going (see Competition and Technological Advancement, May 14, 2009).

Training and staffing, the way it is done in the civil arena, will not be sustainable in the commercial space flight realm. Spending a million and a half dollars creating a military pilot then several more transforming that pilot into an astronaut with the goal of turning out a craftsman makes little sense. More than just a matter or money, it’s just as illogical from the standpoint of obtaining and retaining expertise. When it comes time to build structures in earth orbit and on the moon, we’ll see the emergence of a completely new kind of tradesman: the blue collar astronaut.

I’m a staunch supporter of the International Space Station, believing that it has the potential to be far more than even its designers envisioned. But one must admit that the cost of building it was as astronomical as its locale. If such a structure were to begin construction today, commercial services for the transport of its components and their assembly in orbit could vastly reduce the cost. Without a doubt, commercial services will do just that for current designers of space stations like Bigelow Aerospace and Galactic Suite (see The First Space Settlement, May 18, 2009), as well as those contemplating the venture. And once investors are conviced that a pocket book as vast as space itself is not a necessary ingredient for successfulness and profitability, the list of commercial off planet projects will come fast and furious.

And yes, that’s my personal opinion, but it’s one borne out by history. Let’s face it, there’s no one on earth who can say with absolute certainty how successful, large-scale space construction projects will be conducted, because no one has yet proven a concept. We’re treading on undiscovered country here. But if you accept the premise that space is for everyone then you must naturally arrive at the conclusion that we’re turning the corner on a new era in which the blue collar astronaut joins the ranks of the professionals to form a well-balanced space work force.

Projecting a bit far into the future, you say? Well, we’ll see. In 2003, if you were to have told the average Joe on the street that soon companies were going to begin flying tourists to space, he would have grinned and dismissed you as a foolish dreamer. But isn’t it amazing the difference only a few, short years makes.


In the second section of today’s report, the Mojave-based company XCOR announced Friday that it has begun wind tunnel testing of a 1/16 scale model of its Lynx rocket plane at the U.S. Air Force test facility located at Wright-Patterson Air Base near Dayton, OH, as part of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA).

“The CRADA allows us to form productive partnerships between the U.S. Air Force and private sector companies,” says Barry Hellman, an aerospace engineer at the Air Vehicles Directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright Patterson AFB. “We will work together to develop the aerodynamics of the Lynx which will provide valuable knowledge to help the Air Force develop future access to space systems.”

XCOR hopes to begin flying paying customers into sub-orbital flights soon. Jeff Greason, the company’s CEO, was recently named to the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee. Their Chief Test Pilot is Richard Searfoss, a former NASA Astronaut and Colonel, USAF (Ret). Colonel Searfoss was the Chief X Prize Judge overseeing the SpaceShipOne Flights (see The Ansari X Prize, April 6, 2009).


The First Moon Landing And A New Beginning

July 20, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Forty years ago today, July 20, 1969 humans stepped on another world for the first time. Though I was only 7 at the time, I remember it well. 

I was living in Merritt Island, Florida at the time; practically a stone’s throw from Cape Canaveral, which is what we called Kennedy Space Center in those days. Everywhere throughout the area now called the Space Coast, it seemed like every business had something in its name to point to space: The Satellite Motel; The Rocket Club; Apollo this; Saturn that. Everyone was behind the “moon shot” and wanted to be associated with this greatest of all human adventures in some way or another. There was a real sense of collectiveness back then that I’ve not felt since. We all felt as though we were standing on the cusp of a new era and that soon, we’d all be living the lives of the Jetsons. 

When launch day arrived, 500,000 people lined the beaches up and down the coast, north and south of the Cape and west, just across the Banana River. In every direction you looked, it was a sea of humanity. Anticipation was so thick, you could almost reach out and grab a hand full of it. When lift off came and the massive Saturn V rocket carrying Command Module Pilot Mike Collins, Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Mission Commander Neil Armstrong left the pad and successfully made it to the first leg of their journey in earth orbit, we all let out a small breath of relief. But our angst was only on slow simmer. There was still 3 days to go, 3 days to wait before we would see whether these brave men would place the first human footprints on the moon or perhaps perish in the attempt.

Wernher von Braun, then head of the American rocket program, a man described as the greatest rocket scientist of all time, had this to say: “What we will have attained when Neil Armstrong steps down upon the moon is a completely new step in the evolution of man. For the fist time, life will leave its planetary cradle, and the ultimate destiny of man will no longer be confined to these familiar continents that we have known so long.”

And then after what seemed more like 3 months than 3 days, the time came for Neil and Buzz to climb into the Lunar Module and descend to the lunar surface, leaving Mike to orbit the moon alone, tending their life raft while they set off to walk on another world. Back on earth, huddled around our television sets, we all held our collective breath through those final moments as the LM neared the lunar surface, oblivious to the cryptic messages being exchanged between spacecraft and ground control indicating that fuel was becoming dangerously low and the computer providing critical descent data was overloaded. Had this been a robotic mission, it likely would have failed and crashed, strewing wreckage over miles of the desolate landscape. Fortunately, a man was their to make the kinds of quick decisions that only humans can make in such situations. They landed safely, and Neil went on to place those first footprints and to utter his now historic words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” 

As one after the other of the Apollo missions ventured to and safely returned from the moon, our confidence grew. Even Apollo 13, which failed to reach the lunar surface after the number two oxygen tank exploded and forced an early return to earth, was heralded as “a successful failure.” And from that confidence came plans for a lunar base. Before long, we all took for granted that we’d see it christened by 1980. But NASA’s plans would soon take a sharp turn in a different — and to my mind, wrong — direction.

Instead of building upon the Apollo technology we’d just spent billions on and erecting that new human outpost on another world, NASA decided instead to scrap it and build a gleaming new spacecraft: the space shuttle. In his July 17th Washington Post article titled The Moon We Left Behind, Charles Krauthammer was lenient when he called it “… the most beautiful, intricate, complicated — and ultimately, hopelessly impractical — machine ever built by man.” Let’s do a quick tally, shall we? It was promised to have a fast turnaround of approximately 30 days. It did not; not even close. It was promised to be less expensive than its predecessor. It was not. It was promised to be safer than the expendable launchers. Sadly, it failed in that regard as well. To top it all off, it was never capable of going beyond low earth orbit. And to give you some perspective, settling for low earth orbit instead of the moon is like setting out on a trip from New York to Las Angeles and deciding to quit in New Jersey. Our dream of humans exploring new worlds in person has lain dormant now for nearly half a century, and everywhere we see headlines that bespeak of a space agency lacking vision and focus. The generation that came up watching the the moon landings on television and dreaming of a day when it might be their turn are left feeling betrayed and feeling foolish at having believed all the empty promises.

Chalk it up to a hard lesson. We’ve now seen what does and does not work, so let’s regroup and treat the current situation as an opportunity. Most importantly, let’s not close the door to any possibilities.

One such possibility is a better public, private partnership. There are companies such as SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace and Virgin Galactic who are spending millions upon millions of their own money to develop space systems that, if utilized by NASA, will dramatically reduce costs. The agency must avail itself of these very valuable assets and partner with private industry. They should be viewed as two sides of the same coin.

From a deeper partnership with the private sector will  grow opportunities, many of which are a short, 3-day journey away: the moon. Those opportunities are diverse and plentiful enough to bring jobs from which there will ultimately emerge a space-based economy where living and working on the moon have gone from a research and development project to full time operations where, in turn, we see the emergence of a blue collar space work force.

Imagine that: space enough for everyone.

But if we bypass the moon, we also put off all of that. We relegate space travel to the elite for another half century, or even longer. Some might see that as anti-Mars, but I say it’s very much pro. I see it as a move that can speed up the exploration and colonization of the red planet, because when you bring in private investment in space and the advances in technology that will most certainly accompany it — advances that will only come with lunar operations — those advances can be used to support exploration of the rest of the solar system, beginning with Mars.

There are those who do not see the wisdom in this; some of them very noteworthy.

I’d like to offer a few thoughts on an interview published last week in the Washington Post with Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin. He’s emphatically stated his opposition in the past to going back to the moon, having said, “there’s no reason for us to go back.” Instead he prefers to go on to Mars. In this most recent interview, however, he seems to have softened that position… somewhat, saying that we should, “Let the lunar surface be the ultimate global commons while we focus on more distant and sustainable goals to revitalize our space program” as part of an “internationally-led coalition.” Now it’s not that I’m saying this space veteran and national hero is wrong, but in this case he may be a little short on being right.

Though I think characterizing the moon as “the ultimate global commons” borders on poetic, I take issue with the use of the word “sustainable” when used to describe a policy that focuses on Mars instead. Any serious push for Mars will take decades, spanning many administrations, and we’ve seen recently how any space vision can end up the first casualty as leaders and priorities shift. We need a goal that can be realized in just a few, short years; not decades. The moon is one such goal.

Before going on, I should say that I have an enormous amount of respect for Buzz. He’s the guy who almost singlehandedly solved one of the more daunting problems that faced the early, manned space program. Back then, they were having problems working out a process for space walking. It turns out that it’s a very physically demanding activity. Astronauts were becoming exhausted. But a reliable space walking technique was one of the milestone’s that had to be met in order to go on to the moon. Buzz worked out an ingenious plan: put hand holds and foot restraints all over the spacecraft. That way the astronauts would have a way of steadying themselves and greatly reduce energy spent. Well, it worked like a charm, and the rest, as they say, is history. They did go on to the moon, thanks in no small part to Buzz.

That said, I have to disagree with any assessment that puts the moon on the back burner… and yes, as a national priority. Going back to the moon now will usher in a new, space-based economy in which commercial space flight will grow and make opportunities for all of us in space. There’s still time to make good on all the promises made during Apollo. This can be a new beginning if we have the good sense to learn from past mistakes. 

Like Sammy Hagar sang in Dreams, “We’ll get higher and higher straight up we’ll climb, We’ll get higher and higher leave it all behind. Higher and higher who knows what we’ll find.”


NASA Has a New Chief and SpaceX Does It Again

July 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

It’s been a busy week in space flight circles. The top story is that Charles F. Bolden and Lori Garver were confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday to be the next Aminsitrator and Deputy Administor of NASA. Mr. Bolden would not have been my first choice (see The Bolden Nomination, May 29) but the fact is that he’s been chosen, so I cross my fingers and wish him well, for all our sakes. He’s got quite a job ahead of him. Constellation, NASA’s program to take humans back to the moon and then on to Mars, will be at the top of the new Administrator’s agenda as questions abound over whether the current designs already being tested are the best and most cost-effective. Decisions made over the next year or so will determine the future of manned space flight, so we had better get them right and in short order.

One encouraging sign from Bolden comes from statements he made at his confirmation hearings regarding NASA’s relationship with the commercial sector. He recognized the stark limitations in what the government can accomplish alone when he admitted, “The government cannot fund everything that we need to do…” On the surface, that might seem like a statement of the obvious, but it’s important for NASA’s next head to realize this and to factor it into his decisions. He went on to say that, “… we can inspire and open the door for commercial and entrepreneurial entities to become involved, to become partners with NASA.” Let’s hope he truly takes these words to heart, because it’s only through this kind of symbiotic relationship that the US will maintain forward momentum itowards meeting all it’s space exploration goals. A recent Commercial Spaceflight Federation report to the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, also known as the Augustine Committee, stated it another way: “government and commercial spaceflight are not a “zero-sum game” – they are complementary…” And this is precisely the relationship that must be fostered between the two entities. It is the way all successful exploration programs have been conducted throughout history, and it is the way we’ll succeed today. NASA programs act as the pathfinder, establishing the beachhead, and private industry follows to build infrastructure. Now that’s a match made in the heavens.

And now I’d like to offer my most sincere congratulations to SpaceX! On Monday, they scored another success with the second demonstration flight of their Falcon 1 rocket.

The launch took place from the Reagan Test Site (RTS) on Omelek Island at the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA) in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. “This marks another successful launch by the SpaceX team,” said Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX. “We are pleased to announce that Malaysia’s RazakSAT, aboard Falcon 1, has achieved the intended orbit.”

And so I have to say… Way to go, guys!

Next on the company’s launch manifest for later this year will be the maiden flight of their Falcon 9 vehicle. This is the big brother of the Falcon 1. Carrying 9 of their powerful Merlin engines, this rocket will begin demonstration flights this year in preparation for service carrying cargo to the International Space Station. Commercial service like that provided by SpaceX will reduce the cost of resupplying the station, made possible by the Commercial Orbital Services Contract (COTS). There is also an option in the contract to transport astronauts as well — an option that would save taxpayers even more money while at the same time helping to bolster the entire commercial, human space flight industry — but that funding is being blocked by Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) who disagrees with the incoming Administrator over partnering with private industry. The outcome of this budgetary wrangling is yet to be determined, but with so much at stake, let’s hope Mr. Bolden can hit the ground running, and move a few rocks from the road.



A Space-Based Economic Stimulus

July 13, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

As we draw near to the time when the LCROSS spacecraft impacts the moon (see The Quest To Find Water On The Moon) it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the implications of a discovery of water on the lunar surface. Scientists studying data recently obtained from the Japanese Kaguya (Selene) spacecraft discovered positive evidence of Uranium and several other elements never before detected. This discovery, in and of itself, is a cogent illustration that the moon harbors more natural resources than we’ve ever expected, resources that will be needed to support a base and eventually a settlement there. But if definitive evidence of lunar water is uncovered then the case for going back to the moon is made so strong that even the staunchest detractor will be struck mute. To say that the discovery would be monumental doesn’t begin to sum it up. In one fell swoop the biggest technical challenge in creating a large human presence on the moon will be solved.

It all comes down to economics.  Every pound of mass — consumables like food and water, machinery, construction materials, etc. — we launch into space costs money in fuel spent overcoming earths gravity; hence the less we’re forced to launch, the less we spend and the more economical the venture becomes. Many tons of water will be needed annually to support even a modest human presence in space. If that water is found on the moon, it changes everything. It means a lunar base has its own supply with the added bonus that where water is needed elsewhere in the solar system, it can be launched from the moon at a small fraction of the cost of launching it from the surface of the earth. The presence of water on the moon means the economics of building the first human outpost there becomes vastly simplified.

But there’s yet another benefit from such a discovery.  It would be a boon for commercial space flight, opening up vast new opportunities for the burgeoning industry at a time when it is seeking to expand into new markets.

In contrast to the lengthy, year-long trek required to reach Mars, the moon is a mere 3 days away; within the realm of expertise in commercial space flight. Indeed, commercially-available technology could be expanded to make the journey. And with a destination as close as the moon, rich in natural resources, new markets could spring up quite literally over night.

For example: hydrogen fuel cell automobiles. At the heart of the fuel cell is Platinum. The problem is that there’s not enough of it on earth to replace all the existing cars on the planet with a fuel cell, let alone accommodate for an increasing population. But hanging right above our heads is an abundant supply of it. The moon has many times the amount to be found here on earth. We simply need a cost-effective method of extracting it. Here again, we’re up against the economics of space flight, which would be facilitated by the discovery of water.

But the benefits don’t stop there. Water discovered on the moon equals a lunar base equals economic stimulus for commercial human space flight equals the emergence of a space-based economy with absolutely unlimited potential for jobs. Jobs!

And this brings me back to the original premise behind this blog: that our greatest hope for a large-scale, expansive human presence in space lies with the private sector.

Whether or not water is discovered on the moon, we will build a base there and eventually a settlement, but the presence of that precious substance would erase all doubt that the venture is feasible and open the flood gates of private investment.

And if all that were not enough, that economic stimulus would surely lead to advances in commercially-available technology that could shorten the timetable for the first flights to Mars.

So watch the count down to LCROSS impact with the moon, and cross your fingers on both hands, close your eyes and say a little prayer that we strike water.


Sen. Shelby Blocks Money For Commercial Space

July 8, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member of the Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee within the Senate Appropriations Committee, has for months been attempting to block $150M of Stimulus Bill money set aside by NASA for a commercial space lift capability from reaching its intended destination (see A Rock In The Road), and he may have been successful. He has managed to divert the money to the Constellation program.

At present, the final outcome is unknown. A spokeswoman for Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD),  head of the appropriations subcommittee, has said that she expects the matter will be resolved next week.

Elon Musk, Founder and CEO of SpaceX, the company now building the rocket and spacecraft that can provide safe and cost-effective transport for NASA personnel to and from the International Space Station if the funding clears, was understandably upset. Sen. Shelby has made uninformed statements accusing the commercial industry of failing to prove their vehicles can do the job despite successful launches of the Falcon rocket built by SpaceX. Referring to the diversion of money to Constellation, Musk said “While this could conceivably be advantageous to the parochial interests of a particular district or state, it is unequivocally against the national interest.”

And therein lies the heart of the matter. Sen. Shelby is eager and willing to place the interest of one, small area over that of the entire country. His narrow-minded, provincial attitude is confounding, if not utterly infuriating. Commercial providers like SpaceX are ready and able to provide a safe and cost-effective solution for the nation, one that will spark a new, space-based economy, but the good Senator wants to hold space as the exclusive domain of government.


Let’s hope that our system will yet prevail, and the grand standing of a single individual will not circumvent the will of the rest of the country. We spoke in a loud voice when our representatives roundly passed the NASA Authorization Act of 2008, which clearly requires commercially-provided crew transfer.


Turn Over Low Earth Orbit To The Private Sector

July 3, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

“Quite simply, the key to full utilization of the International Space Station and sustainable exploration beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) is to turn LEO over to the private sector, thereby allowing NASA to focus its resources and expertise on exploration of the Moon and beyond.” This is the recommendation that the Commercial Spaceflight Federation made this week to the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee.

The CSF report to the Committee details how it will be difficult if not impossible for NASA to continue funding of its programs in low earth orbit like the International Space Station without availing itself of the private sector and the investments it can bring to bear. As such, “With private sector development, each dollar of government investment is leveraged by two additional non-government sources of capital: private investment and revenue from other markets.” This drastically decreases the level of risk faces to the government.

That risk is further reduced by the pay-for-performance nature of its agreements with the private sector in which a company “…is only paid upon the successful completion of performance milestones” which “…incentivizes commercial providers to keep development costs as low as possible.”

The kind of symbiosis between public and private sectors suggested by the Federation has already begun to materialize, but it must be expanded beyond its current limitation of cargo-only services. And such an expansion would require “no new private launch vehicle development”, hence no additional costs.

If the government will follow through with the full partnership between civil and commercial space already called for in the NASA Authorization Act of 2008, the US will see further cost reduction in flights to the International Space Station. Without a commercial crew transport system, the US must rely upon Russia and its ever-increasing, per-seat cost to transport its astronauts to the Station. This is an alternative that should be unacceptable to every American.

The private sector has been launching vehicles to low earth orbit successfully and safely for decades now, and from this experience has grown an industry-based expertise capable of fulfilling NASA’s needs for flights to that region of space. But as important as the cost reduction to the government listed in the CSF’s report is the less tangible: “increased public engagement.”

The public’s attention on the X Prize flights of 2004 (see The Ansari X Prize) is just one example of how NASA could benefit from a deeper relationship with the private sector. Resulting from those flights, the “over 5 billion [emphasis added] media impressions, suggests that NASA has a unique opportunity to leverage these private sector talents for public outreach.”

It’s a win-win scenario for the government. The proverbial horse has been led to the water; the question is whether or not he’s wise enough to drink.


About the Commercial Spaceflight Federation

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is the industry association of companies working to make commercial human spaceflight a reality. Commercial Spaceflight Federation members include commercial spaceflight developers, operators, and spaceports. The mission of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation is to promote the development of commercial human spaceflight, pursue ever higher levels of safety, and share best practices and expertise throughout the industry.


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