The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Dragon ilustration
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft is one of several commercial crew transportation options on the table for NASA to consider under its new plan. (credit: SpaceX)

Commercial space takes center stage

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It was the best of timing, it was the worst of timing.

It was the best of timing for the FAA’s annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference, normally held in early February in Washington, DC. The schedule meant that the conference took place this year just over a week after the White House released its fiscal year 2011 budget proposal, one that emphasized more than ever before the development of capabilities by the commercial sector to transport cargo, and now crews, to low Earth orbit. It was also the worst of timing from a meteorological standpoint, coinciding with yet another major winter storm that paralyzed the city and surrounding region for much of last week, shutting down the federal government for several days.

“We plan to transform our relationship with the private sector as part of our nation’s new strategy with the ultimate goal of expanding human presence across the solar system,” Garver said.

Nonetheless, despite a storm that cancelled flights, shut down public transportation, and made many roads impassible, the conference went on as scheduled last Wednesday and Thursday at a hotel in Crystal City, Virginia, just across the Potomac from downtown Washington. Those who could make it—and over 100 did, particularly on the second day when weather conditions improved—got some insights about NASA new emphasis on commercial capabilities and the abilities of the private sector to fulfill NASA’s needs.

A transformed relationship

The Obama Administration’s shift in direction for NASA has been criticized primarily on two fronts: that it strips from NASA specific goals and deadlines for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), and that it relies too strongly on the private sector. Even some conservatives who might normally be receptive to the privatization of government programs have expressed opposition to NASA’s shift in direction. “It would be swell for private companies to take over launching astronauts,” wrote conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer in his latest column on Friday. “But they cannot do it. It’s too expensive. It’s too experimental.”

Defending NASA’s new plans on both charges was deputy administrator Lori Garver. “We plan to transform our relationship with the private sector as part of our nation’s new strategy with the ultimate goal of expanding human presence across the solar system,” she said in a luncheon speech at the conference Thursday. “So don’t be fooled by those who say we have no goal. That is the goal.”

Turning to the private sector to launch both cargo and crews to LEO, she continued, actually lowered the risk to the agency in the long run by keeping it from relying on a single system for human access to orbit. “We will diversify our risk by funding a portfolio of highly-qualified competitors instead of a high-risk approach in which we fund only one system,” she said. “We’re going to see the most exciting space race that NASA’s seen in a long time, and there’s likely to be more than one winner.”

Garver also discussed other aspects of NASA’s plans that would be commercial friendly. The budget includes nearly $2 billion over the next five years to perform infrastructure upgrades at the Kennedy Space Center. Those investments, Garver said, would create “a true commercial spaceport, with the most advanced launch facilities and passenger-carrying operations.”

NASA is also playing a role in promoting commercial suborbital spaceflight. “I do anticipate that one day soon that these [suborbital] vehicles will be safe enough that NASA will pay for hundreds of astronauts and scientists and technology developers to fly into space each and every year,” she said. To ensure that these vehicles are safe enough for NASA, she said the Dryden Flight Research Center would lead the safety assessment of these vehicles, although she didn’t discuss the details of how such assessments would work.

“Right now I think we’re on the very brink of commercial human spaceflight and regular suborbital space tourism,” said Babbitt.

Other government officials heaped platitudes on the emerging commercial human spaceflight industry at the conference. “President Obama is setting a new direction for space exploration, one that moves us away from the competitive arms race approach of the 20th century and towards a more collaborative, commercialized focused enterprise,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who braved the worst of the blizzard on Wednesday to speak at the conference. “We must look to the strength of the private sector, innovative public-private partnerships, and joint ventures with other nations to advance space technology and create new economic opportunities.”

“Right now I think we’re on the very brink of commercial human spaceflight and regular suborbital space tourism,” said FAA administrator Randy Babbitt (who, like many speakers, was forced to literally phone in his presentation because of travel difficulties). He summarized commercial space’s newfound prominence succinctly with a newspaper metaphor. “Commercial space is page 1 above the fold.”

NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver talks about her agency’s new commercial spaceflight plans at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference, cohosted by AIAA, on February 11. (credit: J. Foust)

SpaceX in the crosshairs

If commercial space is indeed “page 1 above the fold”, then SpaceX likely figures prominently in the lede. While a number of more established aerospace companies, like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital Sciences, have all shown interest in commercial cargo and crew transportation, SpaceX has been one of visible companies in the wave of entrepreneurial “NewSpace” companies and a leading proponent of commercial human spaceflight to serve the needs of both NASA and commercial customers. It’s also the company many detractors of commercial human spaceflight think of when they note the “untried” vehicles such companies are offering.

NASA’s new emphasis on commercial providers means more attention to SpaceX as it gears up for the inaugural launch of its Falcon 9 rocket, the vehicle the company plans to use for cargo and, hopefully, crew flights to the ISS. Outwardly, though, the company isn’t showing any evidence of pressure to perform. “We’re trying to keep our eyes focused on the task at hand, and right now that is the next Falcon 9 launch,” said Larry Williams, SpaceX vice president of strategic relations. That launch is currently scheduled for as soon as March, but Williams acknowledged the launch would likely slip to April or even May as the company deals with issues common with the first launch of a new rocket.

Williams said that despite the newfound attention on commercial spaceflight, he didn’t feel the company’s future was riding exclusively on that first Falcon 9 launch. “It’s not one flight that all this hinges upon,” he said. Williams suggested that even a successful first Falcon 9 launch would not quiet “naysayers” of the company or commercial spaceflight in general. “They will just come back and say, ‘This was a test launch, it doesn’t mean anything,’” he said. “When you break into a new industry, this sort of stuff is to be expected.”

The company is also trying to make clear its emphasis on safety, another sticking point for some detractors of the company or commercial human spaceflight generally. “The public perception is that maybe we’re thrill-seeking a little bit,” said Ken Bowersox, a former NASA astronaut who joined SpaceX last year as its vice president of astronaut safety and mission assurance. He noted that the company’s quality policy called for the safest, most reliable, and economical access to space—in that order. “Safety would come first, then reliability, and then you start worrying about cost,” he said.

“Safety would come first, then reliability, and then you start worrying about cost,” said SpaceX’s Bowersox.

A challenge, he said, is figuring out how to carry out safe human spaceflight that meets NASA requirements without being overly burdened by agency standards and procedures that might not fit well with a commercial venture that also seeks to lower costs. “One of the things that I’m honestly going to worry about is how to do that in a way that doesn’t just shut us down as a company,” Bowersox said. If NASA continues its willingness to be “creative and flexible” in how it applies those standards, he said, “I think we have a very high chance of success.”

A separate, and more cultural, issue is the willingness of NASA astronauts to fly on commercial vehicles. Bowersox said he thought that mission specialist astronauts would adapt easily to the switch from riding in the shuttle to riding in SpaceX’s Dragon or another commercial vehicle. Pilot astronauts, though, might need some extra convincing. “I think if the pilots look really closely, and realize that they could have multiple vehicles to fly on,” he said, “I think they could be very excited.”

Gearing up for this year and beyond

Much of the attention on the new plan has focused on the $6 billion planned for commercial crew transportation. Agency officials, though, are still figuring out how to structure a commercial crew program. “We were as surprised as everyone else last week by the rollout of the president’s budget,” said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program. He said there was no timeframe yet for rolling out the commercial crew program, although there is intense effort within the agency to work on developing it.

However, there is already a lot of activity going on within NASA related to commercial human spaceflight, both orbital and suborbital. The same day that the budget was released, NASA announced the winners of $50 million in contracts for its Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, a technology development precursor to a future commercial crew program. Those awards went to five companies ranging in size from small (Paragon) to large (Boeing, United Launch Alliance). “We had an amazing amount of response” to the CCDev solicitation, Lindenmoyer said, with 36 proposals submitted. “We were very impressed at the breadth and depth of the proposals.”

NASA is also working on requirements for commercial crew vehicles. “We knew we needed to work on human rating requirements that would be appropriate and applicable for commercial systems,” Lindenmoyer said. A “first pass” of those requirements should be ready for release to, and feedback from, industry in the coming weeks.

On the suborbital side, NASA’s Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) program is gearing up its work with $2.5 million in funding for the current fiscal year (see “Building up a new market for suborbital spaceflight”, The Space Review, December 7, 2009). “I think we’re going to be a pathfinder in a lot of different areas in terms of the practical use of this capability,” said Mike Skidmore, CRuSR program manager, at a NASA workshop the day before the FAA conference. That means working through some issues such as procurement and safety in the coming year. One challenge he noted was the difficulty in getting vehicle developers to provide technical information about their vehicles that can be shared with potential users to understand those vehicles’ capabilities and environments.

The schedule for the rest of the year for CRuSR is in flux, he said, but one goal is to start the process of signing up demonstration payloads for these vehicles. “We’ve got a little bit of a chicken-or-egg situation, where we can’t get money for payloads until the science is selected, but nobody wants to select science until they know what the payloads are,” he said. A series of demonstration flights with NASA or university payloads, he believes, could break that cycle.

“I have a feeling this is going to be a conference that we’re going to be talking about for years to come,” said Nield, only partially referring to the weather.

NASA is separately working on a technology roadmap for space access, attempting to identify key technologies and assessing their relatively utility for enabling space access capabilities, according to Dan Rasky of NASA Ames. The agency has been reaching out to industry, meeting with a wide range of companies to get their feedback on what they consider to be the key technologies needed for future launch vehicles. Those inputs will go into an initial roadmap later this month, with a final version, after input from an independent panel, in May. That roadmap will then play a factor in determining the efforts of the space technology development program included in the FY11 NASA budget proposal.

All of these efforts, agency officials believe, will help stimulate the development of commercial capabilities NASA plans to rely on for access to LEO under the new direction from the White House. “I am hopeful that, with the partnerships being established between the FAA and NASA and the private sector, that the American commercial space transportation industry will step up to the challenge of providing safe, reliable, and cost effective access to low Earth orbit,” said Lindenmoyer, “so NASA can once again set its sights on the human exploration of the universe, and perhaps even sooner than we originally planned.”

“I have a feeling this is going to be a conference that we’re going to be talking about for years to come,” George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, said in his closing remarks. “Part of that is because of the weather, but not all of it.” This year commercial human spaceflight has been given its best opportunity to date to deliver on its promises of reduced cost and creating whole new markets. Years from now we’ll see if this conference demonstrated their ability to deliver, or if they fell short.