Academia and Entrepreneurial Space Companies Seek Closer Ties

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WASHINGTON — Early stage space companies and universities, which have tended to operate in separate orbits, should find ways to work more closely together to take advantage of innovations each side can offer, representatives of both communities recommended recently.

“When we talk about connections and relations between academia and industry, especially engineering-oriented industries, the conversations tend to focus around workforce training,” said Ariel Anbar, professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Arizona State University, during an event titled “Space Exploration: How and Why?” organized by the university and held here Nov. 15.

Anbar, though, said there were opportunities for closer ties between universities and “new space” companies. “I think there’s a deeper and more authentic relationship between industry and academia that we can foster,” he said, expanding the focus beyond just science and engineering students to those in other disciplines, who, he noted, could one day be customers of or investors in such companies.

The high public profile of some “new space” companies has already helped inspire the current generation of students to pursue degrees in related fields. Steven Isakowitz, president of Virgin Galactic, said he was approached by a student after a recent talk at a university who said he got interested in the industry after seeing the flights of SpaceShipOne, a privately developed reusable suborbital spacecraft, nearly a decade ago. “What inspired me was the Apollo program,” Isakowitz said, “but now we have a new generation of young people who are saying it was SpaceShipOne.”

For now, ties between academia and “new space” have tended to fall along traditional lines, such as student internships at companies. Isakowitz said Virgin Galactic recently started accepting applications for its first summer internship program. “We had more students apply in the first two weeks than employees at the company,” he said. “Clearly, we’re tapping into something that really excites people.”

Some, though, are interested in harnessing the capabilities being developed by such companies, particularly in their potential to develop and launch spacecraft less expensively than traditional companies, to enable advances in science. “I can’t tell you how many discussions we had at NASA headquarters when we were trying to plan portfolios, particularly in tight fiscal environments, where access to space was the key,” recalled Jon Morse, former director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division. “The ‘new space’ paradigm is now opening up a lot more access to space, and I think that’s going to be a windfall for scientific investigations.”

Morse is now trying to leverage those emerging industry capabilities as chief executive of the BoldlyGo Institute, a new nonprofit organization that intends to enable what he called “‘new space’ science.” He said the new institute will make use of philanthropic funding models and commercialization of technology to support space science missions that are not funded by government agencies. 

“There’s so much world-class science left on the floor because the government doesn’t have enough resources,” he said. “We want to take a direct and serious look at changing the funding model, and partnering with universities and aerospace companies to make that happen.”

The flow of innovation between academia and entrepreneurial space can go in both directions. Alex Saltman, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, emphasized the transfer of technology from universities to industry as another area of cooperation between the two communities, as well as more direct cooperation on projects of joint interest.

“I would love to see a university or a group of universities partner with a company or a group of companies to accomplish some goal that has both commercial and scientific value,” he said.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver noted that academia is already partnering with industry in efforts like the Google Lunar X Prize, the $30 million competition to land a privately developed spacecraft on the lunar surface. “I think we’re already on this path” of academia-industry cooperation, she said. “This interdisciplinary approach is clearly something that’s going to be helpful for the future.”