Commercial Space: What Role Is It Ready For?

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Many are touting commercial as the answer after the Augustine committee, appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama to reassess the nation’s human spaceflight program, strongly advocated a multitude of commercial options as a path forward. Even when the root problem was identified as a lack of funding for NASA, commercial options were still presented that require at least $5 billion from NASA’s budget to develop and provide less capability and safety than Ares 1 and Orion.

So why is there a push for commercial? Is there a business model for commercial human spaceflight? Does commercial get us beyond low Earth orbit?

A potential near-term role for commercial space flight is delivering cargo — not humans — to low Earth orbit. Two companies have been awarded $4 billion in NASA contracts to transport cargo to space. NASA hopes that one of them will be successful and begin to prove capability prior to the retirement of the international space station (ISS).

To date, commercial participants have made limited progress and experienced many challenges. Contracts have been pulled, failures have occurred and schedules have slipped up to two years. This has been a stark reminder that rocket development programs are challenging. Just labeling a rocket “commercial” does not exclude it from problems.

For instance, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has conducted five launches of its simple Falcon 1, four of which failed (three totally, one partially). The company has learned from its failures and is working on upgrades. The more complex Falcon 9, designed to carry cargo to the ISS, is two years behind schedule and has yet to be launched. Moreover, this is the same vehicle they say can carry crew to ISS within three years.

Nevertheless, the Augustine committee has proposed investing another $5 billion in commercial crew capabilities even though the $4 billion already invested has yet to show a single pound delivered to ISS.

If a commercial system successfully delivers cargo to the ISS, then it will be time to carefully consider commercial human spaceflight. As Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia demonstrated, America is not tolerant of space accidents. The loss of an astronaut is a profound national loss. Risking the nation’s entire human spaceflight program on embryonic and unproven rockets is simply unacceptable.

The saying “history will repeat itself” applies to commercial space. During the 1980s and ’90s, commercial companies such as Rotary Rocket, Amroc, Microcosm and Beal Aerospace all set out to revolutionize the space industry. They failed due to a variety of technical problems, weak financial backing and a lack of market. More recently, companies such as RocketPlaneKistler, Transformational Space Corp. (t/Space) and AirLaunch also failed. Interestingly, these failures are not because of limited engineering talent or lack of motivation.

Private ventures are highly motivated to collect on billion-dollar contracts and have hired some of the brightest engineering talent money can buy. Despite feverishly working to collect, however, milestones have slipped and the final prize has proved elusive precisely because flying rockets is a difficult, dangerous undertaking.

Until commercial space proves it can successfully, safely and reliably deliver cargo to the ISS, we must avoid compromising our existing human launch capabilities and unwisely finding ourselves without any capability at all. It is one thing to gamble on commercial cargo, where if it fails, the United States will have to buy services from Russia. If a commercial crew launch fails, however, then we may not have a U.S. space program.

Commercial options alone leave us constrained to low Earth orbit. Other countries are rapidly developing space programs to go beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), so we must develop a system that allows us to do the same and maintain our space leadership.

The Ares architecture system was designed with the capability to perform missions in low Earth orbit and beyond. When Ares 5 is complete, the system will be able to realize its main purpose of enabling deep space travel. With the combination of the Ares 1 crew vehicle and the heavy-lift capability of Ares 5, Orion will be able to explore deeper space destinations for weeks and months versus days during the Apollo program.

The Ares and Orion programs have been under development for more than four years. Major milestones, including preliminary design reviews and successful ground tests, have been achieved. The program conducted a very successful test flight of Ares 1-X largely because it was able to draw on NASA’s experienced work force and proven hardware. The Ares system is designed to be not only the most capable, robust and reliable vehicle, but also the safest crew launch vehicle ever built.

There may come a time for using commercial human launch vehicles, but that time is not today. As a nation we cannot take the risk in the near term of going strictly commercial and not only losing our capability to move beyond LEO, but also banking our entire space program on an unproven notion.

America has invested over $8 billion in Orion and Ares, and they draw on demonstrated capabilities and safety margins far beyond any proposed commercial approach. Now is the time to leverage that investment with continued support — not a time to discard these proven systems in favor of immature, high-risk commercial options.

 

Scott “Doc” Horowitz, an aerospace consultant, is a former NASA associate administrator| for exploration and a four-time space shuttle astronaut.