SAN FRANCISCO — Instead of gathering around a conference table, people who visit the Space Portal of the NASA Research Park are invited to settle into one of the large upholstered leather chairs arranged in a circle. Although the grouping of mismatched furniture appears haphazard, it is designed to make visitors feel at ease while discussing commercial business ventures, financing options or government space policy.
“If you want to innovate, you need comfy chairs,” said Daniel Rasky, Space Portal director.
Innovation is the primary goal of the Space Portal, an organization established in 2005 by a group of NASA veterans with diverse backgrounds who shared a common interest in promoting commercial space activity. That group included: Rasky, an expert on thermal protection technologies; Lynn Harper, one of the founders of the science of astrobiology; Mark Newfield, NASA Ames project manager for the Mars Exploration Rover Thermal Protection System; and Bruce Pittman, an aerospace engineer who worked on NASA satellite missions before co-founding commercial space ventures, including Kistler Aerospace Corp. and SpaceHab Inc.
The multidisciplinary nature of the Space Portal team is one of its primary strengths and a reflection of the culture of Silicon Valley, said Gary Martin, director of new ventures and communications at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. With the support of local communities, NASA Ames established the NASA Research Park in 2002 on land formerly occupied by the U.S. Naval Air Station Moffett Field.
Location: Mountain View, Calif.
Top Official: Daniel Rasky, director
Mission: To promote development of the new commercial space economy
Space Portal leaders say another strength is their collective decades of work inside the space agency including hands-on flight experience. Before founding the Space Portal, “we all found creative ways to work within the bureaucracy,” Rasky said. “That usually meant taking risks and working with people outside our own small groups.”
Space Portal members continued that pattern of seeking outside support when they developed the programmatic concept for the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS), which promised a total of $500 million to companies to demonstrate orbital transportation vehicles. “We had to figure out how to design a program that would attract private equity and lead to a service that NASA needs,” Rasky said.
With help from Alan Marty, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Space Portal leaders devised the approach that NASA later followed. Instead of following the traditional practice of paying companies for costs incurred developing a new launch vehicle, the Space Portal suggested NASA craft funded Space Act Agreements that offered rocket builders the opportunity to propose their own milestones but receive payment only when NASA confirmed that each company had achieved its stated goals. That approach paid off in 2012 with Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s first commercial cargo delivery to the international space station. Orbital Sciences Corp., the COTS program’s other funded participant, made its first paid cargo run this month.
Since the Space Portal’s inception, its leaders also have worked to promote greater utilization of the ISS. In 2005, the Space Portal organized a workshop, with the support of then-NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, that brought together government and industry researchers eager to conduct experiments in microgravity with firms interested in providing space station support services and potential funders from NASA and the investment community. “To our knowledge, it was the first meeting that brought together suppliers, researchers and financiers,” Rasky said.
That workshop helped to publicize the varied types of research that could be conducted on orbit and served as a jumping-off point for successive meetings, workshops and discussions, said Harper, the Space Portal’s integrative studies lead.
Many of the Space Portal’s activities are designed to help entrepreneurs and companies with little experience working with NASA gain access to the space agency’s expertise. “People come to the Space Portal informally to get advice,” Rasky said. “We hook them up with the right people to encourage collaboration.”
One of those people was Peter Platzer, a former NASA Space Portal intern who later established Nanosatisfi LLC, a San Francisco-based startup that obtained funding through a Kickstarter campaign to build and launch cubesats people can program through the Internet to conduct experiments. “The people at the Space Portal are energetic and full of ideas,” Platzer said by email. “Their support was tremendous.”
Other recent visitors to the Space Portal include California Gov. Jerry Brown and Steve Jurvetson, managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, an investment firm that provided early backing for SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., and Earth imagery startup Planet Labs of San Francisco.
“You see this swirl of ideas and interaction of different players,” said Pittman, Space Portal flight projects director. “Those interactions are helping to increase the pace of commercial space activity. We are bringing the pace of Silicon Valley to the space program.”
Instead of looking for government to lead the way toward future space settlement, Space Portal leaders look to private industry. “Government can help but it cannot lead the way,” Martin said.
That government help is likely to come in the form of public- private partnerships, Rasky said. Because unlike the Apollo era when U.S. leaders were willing to devote massive resources to the goal of sending people to the Moon, a significant portion of future exploration is likely to be financed privately.
Throughout history, exploration often has been financed by people willing to devote personal fortunes toward those lofty goals, Harper said. That trend is continuing as wealthy individuals, such as Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow, use their own money to support commercial space enterprises, she added.
In addition to focusing on exploration, Space Portal members began working in 2012 with Silicon Valley organizations, businesses and individuals to identify advanced technological solutions to make life on Earth more sustainable. Much of that technology was inspired by NASA space exploration research because successful space missions beyond low Earth orbit require extremely efficient use of water, oxygen and other essential resources, Rasky said.
The Space Portal’s budget of approximately $1 million a year comes from a variety of sources, including NASA’s Emerging Space Office at NASA headquarters. That includes money to pay the Space Portal’s eight employees and little additional funding for meetings and conferences.
“We are the organizational equivalent of stone soup,” Pittman said.