Should NASA Open Low-Orbit Space to Business?

Sept. 15, 2011—The National Aeronautics and Space Administration reported today that United Parcel Service delivered two months of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) on board its fleet of Crew Exploration Vehicles. The vehicles were launched with Falcon rockets from Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

The thought of asking “What can Brown do for you?” in space sounds ludicrous because there are not enough vehicles or support to allow commercial entities to operate in near-Earth orbit. Except for a few commercial satellite-launching operations and experimental private vehicles, governments own the only roads to space.

And, in the U.S., at least, NASA is preoccupied with a space shuttle fleet grounded over safety concerns from the July 26 launch of Discovery. But the idea of UPS—or some yet-to-be-heard-of firm—making low-orbit space trips may not be science fiction that much longer.

NASA is conducting a study, expected this month, that examines handing off chores such as supplying the International Space Station to private industry once the space shuttle is retired in 2010, says Michael Braukus, public affairs officer at NASA. “The study is still under way, but we will look at when it is ideal for private industry to take over,” Braukus says.

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According to Charles Beichman, executive director of the Michelson Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, NASA should drop low-earth-orbit (about 220 miles up) space missions for bigger projects such as returning to the moon and going to Mars. “I don’t think NASA should be doing low-orbit space,” Beichman says. “There’s nothing new to do.”

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin is at least open to leaving the low-orbit business. During a House Science Committee hearing on June 28, Griffin noted that NASA plans “to leverage our nation’s commercial space industry to meet NASA’s needs for ISS cargo logistics and possibly crew support.”

If low-orbit space missions went commercial, it would satisfy the growing chorus, including Beichman and Reps. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), clamoring for NASA to focus on exploration.

Shifting low-orbit transportation to the private sector would transfer the risk of space travel to companies operating for profit. These companies could advance further development of low-orbit space travel and allow NASA to focus on goals such as a Mars mission. A private-sector handoff would also relieve NASA from developing a successor to the shuttle. Seven astronauts died in the 1986 Challenger explosion and another seven in the 2003 Columbia disaster.

On Aug. 9, the most recent shuttle, Discovery, returned safely, but future missions have been grounded until NASA resolves problems with falling foam.

How would NASA pass the baton to the private sector? Here’s a look at the challenges the two parties would face.

Challenge:Transferring knowledge

Solution:Rely on current NASA suppliers and hire former NASA engineers.

Gene Meyers, CEO of the Space Island Group, a West Covina, Calif., company that hopes to build a fleet of next-generation space shuttles, a commercial space station and an orbiting power plant, has seen knowledge transfer NASA-style.

In 2002, Meyers met with then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe to get maintenance records for the space shuttle so Space Island could design its own craft, which will use the shuttle’s current engine and external fuel tanks. He expected a bunch of boxes full of paper, but came away empty-handed. The problem? “Most of the original records couldn’t be found,” Meyers says.

After that experience, Meyers does not expect a lot of knowledge to be transferred electronically from NASA. His workaround: Hire former NASA engineers and utilize contractors’ experience in the shuttle program to build something new from existing parts. After all, NASA funds programs, but most work on the shuttle is outsourced to defense contractors such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, ATK Thiokol and Pratt & Whitney.

Because NASA outsources to contractors, John S. Edwards, a space systems analyst for research firm Forecast International, says the nuts and bolts of commercial space travel shouldn’t be hard to put together. “The expertise is already in place in the private sector,” Edwards points out. “Companies like Lockheed, Boeing and Northrop Grumman have it.”

Next page: Following NASA’s Lead.

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