When U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his 2011 budget request to Congress Feb. 1, Brett Alexander will be among those scanning the NASA portion for a big funding boost for Commercial Crew Development, a new program that aims to foster development of privately operated space transportation systems capable of ferrying astronauts to the international space station.
As president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, Alexander represents a roster of companies and nonprofits “working to make commercial human spaceflight a reality,” as the Washington-based advocacy organization explains on its Web site.
Alexander says it is in NASA’s and the nation’s best interest to transition low Earth orbit operations to the private sector. Doing so not only would free NASA to focus its limited resources on more daunting challenges, but also promises to spark innovation the U.S. space agency can leverage for human missions to the Moon, Mars or beyond.
A former White House space policy analyst under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Alexander is well versed in the details of NASA’s plan to replace the retiring space shuttle with new rockets and spacecraft optimized for the Moon. Under the Bush administration, he helped draft the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration that led to Constellation, NASA’s plan for returning humans to the lunar surface by 2020. But with the Obama administration seeking to leave its mark on the U.S. space program, the budget for Constellation — including the Ares 1 rocket and Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle — is under threat by the kinds of private-sector space initiatives Alexander’s Commercial Spaceflight Federation supports.
Between leaving the White House in early 2005 and taking the helm of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation in late 2006, Alexander worked for Transformational Space Corp., an entrepreneurial space firm that ultimately folded after being passed over by NASA for a funded Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement.
Last October, Alexander was appointed by NASA Administrator Charlesto chair the NASA Advisory Council’s commercial space committee.
Alexander spoke with Space News reporter Amy Klamper.
What sorts of changes could be in store for Constellation as the agency pushes ahead with a commercial crew capability for low Earth orbit?
From a political perspective, there’s a fear of losing the NASA program for exploration. The reality is that you need to have that program plus multiple commercial efforts which will complement it, but which will also increase commercial space activity. The best thing for NASA is to have a robust commercial human spaceflight sector out there developing new markets, bringing innovation into new capabilities that NASA can later leverage. And they have the money to do both. They need to go straight to heavy lift, keep Orion moving forward briskly, and develop commercial crew capabilities. You’re still going to have to test Orion for low Earth orbit launches. There’s still going to be plenty of activity on that program. But during this period where we’re not going beyond low Earth obit, when we’re in the development process for those vehicles, commercial crew can happen more quickly.
What do you say to congressional skeptics concerned the private sector won’t deliver on a commercial crew capability?
There are multiple aspects to it. I think it’s the right thing for the country to do, because NASA’s job really is about exploration and NASA doesn’t have the resources and the capability to handle the day-to-day operational side of low Earth orbit while taking on exploration beyond it. But I think the country can get both by having the government doing exploration and the private sector doing low Earth orbit activities.
What about safety? Some lawmakers question the private sector’s commitment to meeting NASA’s safety standards.
First, we’re not talking about developing new launch vehicles, we are talking about existing launch vehicles with demonstrated track records, or that will have demonstrated track records. Space Exploration Technologies’ () Falcon 9 rocket will have flown cargo missions over a dozen times before they put people on top. Same for Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Taurus 2. And there are many concepts that use Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 5 rocket. Second, NASA and the private sector are complementary and have to work together on the design and safety requirements to move it forward. There’s a lot that has to be learned from NASA. At the same time, not everything is going to be done the way NASA has always done it.
But how would this work, given that NASA has not yet defined requirements for human-rating commercial vehicles?
Right. Now, what does exist is NASA’s human-rating document 8705.2B, and everybody has a copy of it. How that would change for a commercial program or not is a dialogue between NASA and the private sector, which is just beginning and needs to happen. But while I take the point that NASA has not yet, quote, defined human-rating requirements for commercial, that’s not to say those human-rating requirements aren’t in the public realm and that we don’t all understand that you need triple redundancy in certain critical areas, dual redundancy in other areas, etc. So the top-level requirements are out there. How they would be complied with and verified is not out there.
How soon can the private sector develop an operational capability for crew transportation to low Earth orbit?
A number of companies have different ideas as to what the timeline is. Some are more aggressive than others, but some have also, like SpaceX, been working on a capsule design and a vehicle for a while, so they may be able to do it faster than others at this point. If you compare them with Constellation or a NASA government vehicle design for exploration beyond low Earth orbit, that is a significantly more difficult challenge. It is much more difficult to build a Formula 1 race car than a Ford Focus that takes you to the grocery store and back. A vehicle designed specifically to go to the space station can be done faster and more cost effectively than one designed to do both that and go to the Moon.
The track record of commercial space transportation ventures is not a good one. What makes the current wave any more likely to succeed?
It’s not going to be purely commercial in that sense. The government, in the form of NASA, would be an anchor tenant. Therefore a large portion of the user base is going to be government. Now, what makes it different from a traditional government procurement would be two things. One is that it would be done with commercial terms like pay-for-performance on milestones and private-sector funding at risk. Second is the potential for customers beyond NASA. You already have an existing space tourism market, you have one or two folks a year who pay $20 million-plus to go up in a Russian Soyuz to the space station. People will pay the same amount of money if they can fly up in a U.S. vehicle and they don’t have to spend six months in Russia training and learning Russian. And if that price comes down, the number of people only goes up. If there are other businesses, like Bigelow Aerospace, that plan to have habitats that are on orbit and other activities going on, then you have even more markets.
But who pays the development costs to foster growth in this potential market?
The government will have to pay a large chunk of the development costs and the operational costs for the first few years, but it’s the potential for real commercial activity beyond it that changes the game. That is what NASA needs so that it’s not relying on one system designed 35 years ago. To design the next system to last the next 30 years is not innovation. That is not going to bring the cost down, and that’s frankly not going to improve safety over the long term.
What is the government’s return on investment for paying initial development and operational costs?
The government gets a return on investment immediately. Any government-developed vehicle has to pay for the full development before it even starts flying. And then you’re paying operational costs after that. But with a commercial system, the government will be paying only a portion of the development funds, and then only a portion of the operating funds in the form of services contracts, so the government immediately saves money, because the private sector is putting in funding for development and leveraging other customers’ money for some of the operations.
Will these companies be able to deliver sooner than Constellation?
All space programs take longer and cost more than expected than they did at inception. Right now, NASA’s two COTS-sponsored development efforts compare very favorably with government programs. The beauty of COTS is that you only get paid for successful performance at milestones. If it’s taking longer or you don’t have the money or you can’t meet the technical performance requirements, then NASA can terminate the agreement and start over with the remaining money. By funding multiple commercial crew program capabilities, you have a better chance of having at least one, if not two or more, successful efforts come in on time.