As Egypt and budget deficits have dominated the media headlines, NASA has been quietly stoking a revolution of its own. Commercial competition and partnerships are the keys to NASA re-inventing itself and remaining relevant in the decades to come.
Last week, NASA Chief Administrator Charles Bolden told attendees at an FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference that "We need you, we cannot survive without you." The week before, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver swept through Las Vegas to highlight a discussion with Bigelow Aerospace to launch an inflatable module to expand the International Space Station (ISS), then went to Boulder, Colo., to tour Sierra Nevada's facilities and get a photo op in front of the company's Dream Chaser space plane mockup. (You can check out a YouTube (News - Alert) clip here.)
With the impending retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA needed ways to deliver supplies and crew to ISS. NASA created C3PO, the Commercial Crew and Cargo Office. C3PO would foster the development of the commercial sector with R&D money and encourage competition for COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, but also a play on Commercial Off the Shelf) contracts to deliver supplies to ISS.
While there have been some delays, NASA has not one but two U.S. commercial options on deck to deliver cargo to ISS. Based upon the stunningly successful first flight of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule in December, SpaceX is pushing hard to compress its two COTS demo flights for 2011 into a single launch culminating in a full-up docking and delivery of supplies to ISS. NASA officials have left the door open to take up SpaceX (News - Alert) on the offer and are carefully weighing the proposal before accepting.
A successful demonstration flight would pave the way for SpaceX to start fulfilling an initial contract of 12 flights at a price of $1.6 billion flights for space station resupply, but it also may compete with NASA's desire to fly a third and final shuttle resupply flight as a hedge against delays in either SpaceX's program or Orbital's Taurus II COTS program.
NASA and Orbital have planned the first Taurus II/Cygnus demonstration resupply flight for December 2011. Unlike SpaceX's flights out of Florida, Orbital's first launches would be conducted from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Va. Orbital has a COTS contract for up to eight supply flights to the ISS.
The hottest race is private industry's competition to win NASA CCDev2 (Commercial Crew Development Round 2) monies. NASA plans to award around $200 million this year and there are proposals for two space planes from Orbital and Sierra Nevada, an upgraded version of the SpaceX Dragon capsule, Boeing's CST-100 space capsule and the ATK (News - Alert)/Astrium "Liberty,” a mutant cross between the cancelled Ares I rocket and the liquid-fueled first stage of the Ariane 5. There's even been a bid by the United Space Alliance to keep Space Shuttles Atlantis and Endeavour flying as a commercial service twice a year at a cost under $1.5 billion a year for the next seven years.
And NASA isn't stopping at COTS competition. NASA is putting up large chunks of the Kennedy Space Center up for rental/use by commercial firms, including launch pads, runway, hangers, and bays in the legendary Vehicle Assembly building. Commercial firms could lease facilities at market rates to deliver their services.
Ironically, while commercial space services offer NASA a "better/faster/cheaper" way to do business, a combination of budget cuts and parochial protection of incumbent contractors -- call it space pork barrel or rocket science crop subsidies -- by Congress may end up choking off the relative small amounts of funding needed for these services to come to fruition. The cost of one space shuttle flight - estimated at $500 to 600 million, equals the amount of private money SpaceX has raised and put into developing and launching a small rocket (Falcon 1), a medium-sized rocket (Falcon 9) and the Dragon capsule. Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.
Edited by Tammy Wolf