May 12, 2009

NASA’s Free-Market Solution

Since the inception of NASA, the space agency has designed all of its own rockets, spacecrafts and orbiters. However, after nearly half a century it has finally approved the outsourcing of equipment enabling manned space missions to private contractors.

NASA Administrator Chris Scolese told a congressional subcommittee last week that the agency intends to provide $150 million in stimulus-package money to private companies that design, build and service their own rockets and crew capsules. This is spacecraft that could send astronauts in orbit while NASA works to finish building the space shuttle's replacements.

On Thursday, the White House ordered a complete review of the entire manned space program to be led by long time friend of private space ventures, former Lockheed Martin CEO of Norman Augustine.

This turn in events shows that the space agency - that at one point seemed to be dragging its heels - and the Obama administration are both ready to promote and make possible commercial human space flight.

This is a drastic change, and one that has the potential to lessen the American dependency on Russia for the next 5 years after the space shuttle program ends. It could restart a space program that seems to have lost steam for the past 40 years.

William Watson, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, a Houston-based group promoting commercial space activities says, "Our government space program has become over-burdened with too many objectives, and not enough cash." Watson comments that by giving private companies permission to take on routine orbital duties, NASA could be freed to focus on returning to the moon and going to Mars.

Scolese said that they will be rewarding $80 million in stimulus money to the company that demonstrates the best "crewed launch demo", a prototype based on existing cargo-capsule designs that have been modified for humans. The agency emphasized that this competition was open to all. 

Space flight companies SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are considered to be the best-situated contenders. Both of them already have cargo capsules and a full line of rockets ready to go, and the capsules can be converted to transport astronauts.

Neither of the firms have wanted to speak up about their sudden increase in opportunity. Orbital Sciences didn't respond to any questions and SpaceX says that it has been "encouraged by NASA's commercial crewed services initiative."

NASA's savings in time and money are significant.

These leading contractors are building their launch vehicles from scratch. Their designs highlight incredibly efficient business models with low manufacturing costs. They also manage to operate with at only a few dozen employees at their launch sites, which is a stark contrast to the space shuttle program's 15,000 workers.

The aversion NASA seems to have to competing American space ventures goes back at least to the early 1990s, when Lockheed Martin was financed by the Pentagon's Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) to developed the DC-X suborbital experimental rocket.

The Defense department considered the space shuttle to be unreliable and costly, so their intention was to get payloads into orbit using a different reusable craft.

NASA believed that it would be many years before such Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLVs) would be ready to fly, and some inside the agency saw it as a threat to its monopoly on human space flight.

In the year 2000, NASA even opposed the giving a broke Russian space agency a $20 million deal to send American billionaire, Dennis Tito as the first "space tourist."

But then the death of seven astronauts in the Columbia space-shuttle disaster of February 2003 forced NASA to reconsider its position on the issue. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board's final report stated bluntly that it "found a NASA blinded by a 'Can Do' attitude, a cultural artifact of the Apollo era that was inappropriate in a Space Shuttle program so strapped by schedule pressures and shortages that space parts had to be cannibalized from one vehicle to launch another."

The report went on to say that NASA's close relationship with a small number of major contractors and its problems integrating political and legal demands with the need to maintain engineering excellence had burdened the agency to the breaking point.

Then in January 2004, President George W. Bush decided to restart the space program, announcing his "Vision for Space Exploration" was to return to the moon and send humans to Mars.

In October 2004, engineer Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize. His rocket was the first privately built flying machine to ever reach space.

There was, however, a catch to the Bush plan. As part of the ambitious new program, the 30-year-old space-shuttle program will be ending next year, which will save NASA $3 billion each year to spend on new spacecraft. The first spacecraft is due to fly in late 2015.

This plan has created a gap in America's ability to launch astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). For at least five years, NASA will have to depend mostly on Russia to send Americans into space, a situation with which many space experts and politicians take issue.

After these occurrences, NASA became considerably more open to commercial ventures. In late 2005, the agency Administrator at the time, Michael Griffin, reported that NASA was considering buying crew and cargo transportation services to the ISS from private industries.

"We believe that when we engage the engine of competition, these services will be provided in a more cost-effective fashion than when the government has to do it," Griffin said.

In 2006, the first of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contracts was won by SpaceX, which received a contract worth $278 million, and by Rocketplane, which was supposed to get $207 million.

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX for short, founded by PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk, had already been working hard on its Falcon series of rockets.

It had also finished initial designs on a multipurpose capsule called the Dragon, which could be adapted to carry either crew or cargo to the ISS on a Falcon 9.

SpaceX was supported primarily by Musk's personal funds, but it also had a small number of contracts to launch satellites for the Defense Department and from overseas.

Rocketplane Kistler, unlike SpaceX, was highly innovative but lacked finances. It promised to build on an earlier RLV program that had failed to get off the ground after a promising start in the late 1990s.

In October 2007, Rocketplane Kistler's NASA contract was aborted due to its failure to meet the financial milestone requirements.

The remaining $170 million from the Rocketplane Kistler allowance was awarded to Orbital Sciences Corporation, for its Taurus 2 launcher and Cygnus capsule combination.
Orbital is one of the only entrepreneurial space firms that have successfully gone from start-up to billion-dollar status. They not only build the Pegasus and Taurus launchers, but have also established a good reputation in building small-to-medium-sized commercial and scientific satellites and space probes.

Most importantly, both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are well funded and commercially feasible, which is a critical factor to NASA.

It is much preferred for a private company to show a readiness to invest its own money rather than just spend NASA's money.

Not everyone involved in NASA is pleased with this idea.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, told FoxNews.com that "in order to preserve U.S. leadership in space, it would be better to invest in a lifting body lander, a spaceplane that would land on a runway like the Shuttle does now"¦there is a [NASA] design called the HL-20 that could be launched on an existing reliable rocket and could be ready for a demonstration flight in 2013."

The Space Frontier Foundation's Watson goes even further.

"Let's have an American competition in space "” to create good jobs, fuel innovation and close the [spaceflight] gap more quickly," he said. "With private funds matching government investment, we can dramatically leverage taxpayer dollars to produce breakthroughs in a new American industry "” commercial orbital human spaceflight."


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