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NASA’s Effort to Boost Commercial Spaceflight

“Tech transfer on steroids” is how Kathryn Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, describes the agency’s support for the private companies who are building spacecraft that will take American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

Speaking on a recent edition of Johnson Space Center’s official podcast, Lueders said the Commercial Crew Program is the result of decades of desire for a commercial capability to take things and people into space. NASA’s support has been instrumental in turning that desire into reality, she explains, making orbital flight more accessible.

“I always tell people space is not just for NASA anymore,” Lueders remarked. “It is for all of us, every American.”

JAXA HTV-5 ISS web

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Kounotori 5 H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-5) is seen departing from the International Space Station. The cargo vehicle was berthed to the orbiting laboratory for five weeks until it was released on Sept. 28, 2015. HTV-5 delivered almost 5 tons of hardware and supplies. NASA photo

In 2019, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsules are scheduled to begin ferrying crews to the ISS, restoring a capability that the United States has lacked since 2011 when the Space Shuttle Program ended. Since then, NASA has relied on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to transport crews to the ISS.

Cargo is already being flown to the ISS commercially. Since 2012 and 2013 respectively, SpaceX’s Dragon and Orbital ATK’s (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems) Cygnus spacecraft have been delivering supplies and equipment to the station under NASA contracts. In the next several years, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser will begin cargo resupply runs to the ISS. The unmanned freighters are the first products of a 30-year quest to get commercial spaceflight off the ground. But NASA’s support for the effort wasn’t always a given.

 

The Third Wave

Ven Feng, manager of NASA’s International Space Station Transportation Integration Office, says the current push for commercialization of orbital flight is the latest wave of the idea that private industry could enter a domain that had previously always belonged to governments.

“There was a wave in the 1980s and one in the 1990s,” Feng said. “I think this one really kicked off when administrator Mike Griffin [NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, 2005-2009] and Bill Gerstenmaier invested $500 million in 2006 in commercial transportation, transportation being one of the most expensive aspects of access to low-Earth orbit. I think when they looked at the Space Shuttle retiring and as a complement to Constellation, they decided it was the right time to invest.”

In 2004, President George W. Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration. The administration’s space policy, which came to be known as the “Constellation Program,” called for completion of the ISS, retirement of the Space Shuttle, and returning man to the Moon by 2020. With the Space Shuttle anticipated to make its last flight in 2010, Griffin’s five-year, $500 million investment began the effort to build a new generation of launch vehicles, a program called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS).

“This was at a time when many people thought it was unlikely that private industry, especially on a firm, fixed-price basis, would be able to go out and design and build new rockets and spacecraft, and actually service low-Earth orbit,” Feng noted.

Indeed, there had been strong opposition within NASA and some quarters of the U.S. government to the notion of commercial spaceflight for decades. In August 2000, NASA awarded four small businesses 90-day contracts totaling $902,000 to study how to provide contingency cargo launch services for the ISS and what technology development or business planning would be needed.

Cygnus resupply ship ISS web

The Cygnus resupply ship from Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems) is in its capture position as the Canadarm2 robotic arm slowly reaches out to grapple it in October 2016 during Expedition 49. NASA photo

The funding was tied to the access to space studies begun by the agency in the mid-1990s, which proposed both cargo and crew resupply vehicles for the ISS. But this and subsequent programs with similar aims, including the Space Launch Initiative and the Orbital Space Plane, never got off the ground. Some of the firms involved complained publicly about what they perceived as NASA’s bias against commercial spaceflight.

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Jan Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...