These are exciting times in the space sector. In addition to the stirring success of the Curiosity Mars rover, NASA’s human spaceflight organization has bet the farm on buying services from a variety of companies for cargo and crew to the international space station. New companies have emerged and traditional organizations have taken up the commercial bent. If the space tourism entrepreneurs are correct, next year there will be public suborbital flights from New Mexico and Florida. Even commercial plans for mining asteroids for profit have been proposed.
Can deep-space science missions be conducted within this commercial business approach?
Recently I became the program architect for the B612 Foundation in order to help it successfully implement a privately funded near-Earth object (NEO) mission called Sentinel. Its objective is to conduct a thorough survey of NEOs larger than 140 meters using a deep-space infrared telescope. Sentinel should also obtain orbits for a large fraction (perhaps 30-50 percent) of NEOs as small as 60 meters.
Sentinel will be funded via donations, much as virtually all of the ground-based observatories have been since the early 19th century. A recent doctoral dissertation by economist Alex McDonald demonstrates that using appropriate inflation factors, the present-day cost of privately funded observatories such as Mount Wilson or Mount Palomar is in line with the price of a space-based observatory.
NASA, which will receive all the data, is a minority partner in our project through a Space Act Agreement for things like deep-space communications.
The contractor for this mission is Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., which has proposed a firm, fixed-price contract to develop the spacecraft and infrared focal plane. To achieve substantial cost savings over a standard NASA or U.S. Defense Department contract, Ball plans to use “commercial practice” in the development. But what does this mean?
The U.S. National Space Policy document says, “The term ‘commercial,’ for the purposes of this policy, refers to space goods, services, or activities provided by private sector enterprises that bear a reasonable portion of the investment risk and responsibility for the activity, operate in accordance with typical market-based incentives for controlling cost and optimizing return on investment, and have the legal capacity to offer these goods or services to existing or potential nongovernmental customers.”
Certainly B612 is a nongovernmental customer and there might be more business in this sector for Ball if Sentinel is successful, but what about the risk element? In discussions with Ball management, I asked what the determining factor was in utilizing commercial practice for Sentinel. The answer was that Ball made an assessment that the development risk, especially in obtaining the infrared detectors, was sufficiently manageable that the company was willing to offer B612 a fixed price that is about 30-40 percent lower than a comparable NASA cost. Skeptics (including myself) who lived through the faster-better-cheaper era immediately ask, what’s been left out? Is this project a failure waiting to happen?
My own intensive review of Ball’s commercial development unit has convinced me that the engineering processes, parts selection and test program are consistent with the prudent practice I’ve observed for decades in top-notch NASA programs. So — in this particular case — I believe that Sentinel can be successfully developed using the restricted reporting requirements, limited reviews and a milestone-based payment schedule typical of a commercial remote sensing spacecraft such as Worldview.
Where are the limits to such commercial practice? The critical factor is risk management and technology readiness. In missions to Mars or Europa, there are so many new developments and objectives that have never before been accomplished that large financial reserves, “cost plus” contracts, substantial engineering margins and multiple layers of review are necessary to ensure success.
The very good news is that now, 55 years into the Space Age, the worldwide launch infrastructure, advancements in spacecraft technology and management maturity allow us to create and, I believe, successfully implement a private-sector deep-space mission like Sentinel for leading-edge scientific and humanitarian purposes.
G. Scott Hubbard is a professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University, former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center and director of the Stanford Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation. His book “Exploring Mars: Chronicles from a Decade of Discovery” was published this year.