At NewSpace 2013, NASA Preaches Commercial Partnerships

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — NASA is seeking to encourage private companies to assist in identifying threatening asteroids, proving the utility of on-orbit refueling spacecraft and establishing new cooperative projects, space agency officials said July 25-26 at the Space Frontier Foundation’s annual NewSpace conference here.

“We are looking for new areas where there could be an intersection of NASA’s long-term interest and the innovation of the private sector,” said Dennis Stone, program integration manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program. As an example, Stone cited a synopsis issued July 17 seeking information from U.S. companies interested in gaining access to NASA’s expertise through partnerships without any exchange of funds.

The synopsis, called Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities, is designed to identify space-related initiatives that would benefit NASA’s human exploration and operations program. If companies are working on projects related to “space,  whether low Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, asteroids, transportation, communications, data, whatever it is, we would like to hear about it,” Stone said. “All we need right now is a page with contact information and the idea or plan.” 

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Based on the synopsis responses due Aug. 7, NASA officials will decide whether to hold a competition to offer assistance to the most promising proposals through unfunded Space Act Agreements. NASA also could be a potential customer for any space-related products or services that emerge, he added. 

NASA officials realized the utility of this type of unfunded agreement while working with the firms developing commercial space cargo ships. “One of the important lessons of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program was that companies value NASA’s expertise,” Stone said.

NASA is seeking to offer expertise in addition to tools and technology to assist companies seeking to establish on-orbit satellite servicing capabilities. With approximately 430 satellites in geostationary orbit generating $100 billion in annual revenue, there is a potential market for firms capable of repairing, refueling or relocating satellites, said Benjamin Reed, deputy project manager for the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. 

Companies seeking to take on those jobs, however, face political, business and technical hurdles. “Our job is to continue to chip away at those to make this viable to a commercial partner,” Reed said.

One possible approach would be a public-private partnership to perform a satellite servicing mission. “NASA would do the hard stuff, the front end of the bird,” Reed said. A commercial spacecraft builder would provide the satellite bus to the government at no charge in exchange for use of the spacecraft after the demonstration mission, he added.

Another approach to working with industry is being tested in NASA’s campaign to identify asteroids that pose a potential threat to human populations and find ways to redirect those asteroids. On June 18, NASA asked potential partners in government, industry, academia and private citizens around the world to offer ideas on achieving those goals. 

NASA also is eager to encourage companies to  use the international space station. “This is a facility we can use to explore new partnerships and show the commercial sector the benefits of doing research in a microgravity environment,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said. “We can use the space station and commercial cargo providers to get experiments to station.” Once commercial firms embrace microgravity research, the government can get out of the way and let this “unique market” develop on its own, he added. 

It is important that NASA jump-start that process, however, because the space station currently is scheduled to remain on orbit through 2020. “The extension of space station through 2028 is something that is actively being discussed,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said. 

To build political support for that extension, however, NASA must lower space station operations costs  and “facilitate more of the research so we can see the value of doing commercial research in space,” Garver said. “We have been trying to carve out a greater share of funding for utilization. The hope is that as we get operations cost down we can do that.”