Editorial | NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Program Boosts Grassroots-level Space Economy

by

NASA’s space transportation outsourcing strategy appears to have beneficiaries beyond the international space station program for which it was designed: startups looking to leverage increasingly capable nanosatellite technology to create commercial businesses.

The latest case in point is Planet Labs, which aims to launch a constellation of Earth imaging cubesats for applications including land management and agriculture. The venture-capital funded company, founded by former NASA scientists, recently launched a pair of demonstration cubesats, one of which rode as a secondary passenger aboard the first flight of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket. The demonstration flight was sponsored in part by NASA as part of its program to nurture commercial space station logistics services.

The Antares-launched Dove-1 cubesat re-entered the atmosphere after six days because it was placed in a low orbit, but not before taking photographs at resolutions sharp enough to show, for example, where logging had occurred in an Oregon forest.

Planet Labs recently unveiled plans to launch a constellation of 28 cubesats, each capable of taking images at resolutions of 3 to 5 meters, on Antares’ first commercial cargo delivery mission to the station, slated to take place as early as December. The company has raised $13 million, which doesn’t seem like a lot in the traditional space business but can go a long way in the cubesat world, where a host of operational applications have opened up thanks to rapid advances in nanotechnology, much of it commercially driven. 

The advent of commercial flights to the space station dovetails nicely with the cubesat revolution, and also comes amid uncertainty about the future availability of converted Russian ICBMs — a traditional source of relatively cheap access to low Earth orbit. This wouldn’t have been an option just a few years ago: Getting clearance to fly hardware on NASA’s now-retired space shuttle was notoriously difficult, and U.S. government mission managers in general have been less than enthusiastic about accepting secondary payloads. 

Planet Labs is not alone in taking advantage of this emerging commercial spaceflight opportunity. A recent space station logistics mission conducted by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) also carried the first of a new generation of satellites for machine-to-machine communications provider Orbcomm. Unfortunately, the Orbcomm satellite never reached a sustainable orbit due to an issue with the rocket — the cargo delivery was successful — but as everyone in this industry well knows, there is no such thing as a risk-free space mission.  

SpaceX has 10 more space station cargo delivery missions on its Falcon 9 launch manifest; Orbital has eight such missions under contract, in addition to another demonstration flight of Antares. Many if not most of these launches will have the capacity to carry piggyback payloads.  

NASA and its backers in the commercial spaceflight community have long predicted that the outsourcing strategy would help jump start an industry. It remains to be seen when or whether that will happen on a grand scale, but the movement at the smaller end of the spectrum is palpable.