Should NASA Open Low-Orbit Space to Business?

By Larry Dignan  |  Posted 08-31-2005

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.

Following NASA

's Lead">

Meyers hopes to use NASA's suppliers to build what would be a second-generation space shuttle to ferry space-station components, cargo and people into space. The company's shuttle—pending $5 billion to $7 billion in funding—would be built on NASA's work on the Delta Clipper, an experimental vehicle shelved in July 1997, and the X-33, which was scrapped in March 2001.

"The problem with the shuttle was that it was a 30-year prototype," Meyers says. "There were never second and third generations that improved on the first shuttle."

Clint Wallington, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says it remains to be seen whether there's a payoff from transferring NASA's knowledge of astronaut training, supplier contracts and operating launch facilities.

"You can transfer it all [to the private sector], but at what cost?" Wallington says. "You can give away the launch facilities and everything, and it could still take $250 million to do a launch. If you get seven passengers paying $20 million each, you're still [more than] $100 million short."

Challenge: Making a business case

Solution: Push tourism. Find multiple

revenue sources.

According to Beichman, engineering a commercial manned space flight is nothing compared to making a profit. "It's not obvious where the money is going to be made," he says.

Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, British entrepreneur Richard Branson's effort to launch space tourism, says business cases will emerge. In July, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, a Mojave, Calif.-based aerospace design company, announced a joint venture to build a spaceship that could take two pilots and seven passengers into a sub-orbital flight (minimum of 62 miles above Earth). The service, initially targeted for 2008, will cost $200,000 a person for a nearly three-hour trip after three days of training.

Space travel is expensive, but NASA has figured out some ways to get customized systems at a lower cost. See if the approach makes sense for you in: Custom Software on the Cheap "In five to six years, we hope to get that down to $100,000," Whitehorn says.

Whitehorn envisions a trip where passengers can see Earth at the edge of space, float around the cabin and see some stars along the way.

Virgin's partner, Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan, built SpaceShipOne, which in October 2004 reached a height of 69.6 miles to collect the $10 million Ansari X Prize, an award for the first spacecraft to reach 328,000 feet twice within 14 days.

Next up: Develop SpaceShipTwo, which will carry people and payload for Virgin Galactic, and then build SpaceShipThree, which will be an orbiting craft, according to Whitehorn.

Next page: Minimizing the Risk of Business.

Minimizing the Risk of

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But tourism can only go so far, Meyers says. Space Island Group plans to use the insides of the current shuttle's external fuel tanks as facilities that will be leased for research, tourism, and even sponsored launches and sporting events. Using solar space sails developed by NASA, the company hopes to build power stations that would beam energy to Earth via a weak microwave signal. Meyers is pitching officials in China, India and California on space power to fund his shuttle development.

The building block for all of those business cases, however, is cheap launches, Edwards says. Forecast International estimates that a rocket launch can cost from $25 million to $150 million, depending on payload.

What could make a better business case? Less expensive rockets. Space Exploration Technologies, based in El Segundo, Calif., is developing a rocket that would launch for $6 million. "If that works, it would open space up quite a bit," Edwards says.

Challenge: Risk management

Solution: Communicate the risks of space exploration and embrace them.

Perhaps the most daunting challenge facing NASA and commercial providers is the basic risk of flying into space. Will travel outside the atmosphere ever be completely safe? Should it be? How many deaths can be allowed?

With little margin for error, techies in a space operation have to unfailingly put the right information and analysis in from of the people who can act on it. Changing the Fate of Those in Space

Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration, says the risks need to be communicated clearly, and the public then will know enough to accept or reject space travel.

"NASA overstated the safety [aspect], and now space travel is held up to an unreasonable standard," Musk says. "Space travel is dangerous and as long as we accept that risk, we shouldn't be overly concerned about it."

Meyers notes that handing off low-orbit space to the private sector would allow more risk-taking—and possibly more technology breakthroughs. As for selling risk, Meyers looks to NASCAR for inspiration: "With NASCAR, you know it's dangerous and you know something can go wrong. And a lot of people are attracted to that."