Zero Gravity Corp.’s (Zero-G) contract with NASA to
provide brief periods of weightlessness for
astronauts and experiments aboard its
G-Force One aircraft is a positive step that gives an entrepreneurial firm
a chance to prove it can provide a valuable service at a good cost for taxpayers
while posing only minimum risk to the agency’s ongoing training and research activities.
Under the contract, announced Jan. 2, NASA will buy at least one flight week – or a total of four flights – aboard G-Force One for $300,000 this year. The deal specifies a maximum number of 80 flights in 2008 at a price of $4.7 million, and includes four one-year options that could bring its total value to $25.4 million.
John Schubert, chief of the space combustion and microgravity test engineering branch at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, said it is highly unlikely that G-Force One, a modified Boeing 727 aircraft, would conduct 80 flights this year for the agency. He said a top figure of 40 is plausible, however, assuming all goes smoothly. In the meantime, NASA also will have the use of its own C-9 aircraft for parabolic
flights that produce brief periods of weightlessness.
The contract is structured to give Zero-G the incentive to conduct as many flights as possible; the minimum value is not nearly enough to cover the cost of modifying G-Force One to host NASA experiments. Although Zero-G will not divulge the number of flights it needs to break even, the company believes it is possible to make money
on the contract this year.
NASA also appears to have addressed a concern – expressed by Zero-G while the agency was crafting the procurement – that the company would not get the opportunity to bring its per-flight costs down over time. This is important because Zero-G is effectively in a cost competition with NASA’s in-house parabolic flight services, and as Schubert noted, the two appear comparable at this point. Under the contract, the average cost per flight week comes down to $235,000 if 80 flights are conducted.
NASA deserves credit for giving Zero-G a chance with this contract – even if the agency’s hand was all but forced by a U.S. policy directing that NASA utilize commercial products and services that are comparable and cost-competitive with its own. Initial fears that NASA would tilt the playing field to favor the C-9 appear at this point not to have been realized.
It is now up to Zero-G to make good on its opportunity by delivering the parabolic flight services when and where NASA needs them at a cost that is comparable if not lower than those associated with the agency’s own C-9 aircraft.
At the same time, however, Zero-G must take care not to neglect its current customers as it focuses resources on fulfilling NASA’s needs. These customers include not only the private citizens or groups willing to shell out cash to experience weightlessness but also schoolteachers who are given the opportunity to fly for free as part of the Northrop Grumman-sponsored Weightless Flights of Discovery – an important program that if anything deserves to be expanded.
To abandon this market for the
higher-volume NASA business would be to undermine Zero-G’s stated mission of bringing the weightless experience to the public.
Ironically, this also would make it more difficult for Zero-G to offer the government a better deal since NASA effectively would have to cover the company’s entire overhead. Juggling both sides of the business will not be easy, but if Zero-G can pull it off it will have demonstrated that the entrepreneurial industry sometimes referred to as NewSpace is truly viable – without ever leaving the atmosphere.