With the space shuttles retired, NASA is betting on the emerging commercial spaceflight sector to restore independent U.S. crew access to the international space station. If the strategy is successful, a new and potentially lucrative industry could take root in the United States, putting researchers, sightseers and business people into orbit alongside professional astronauts. If the effort fails, the country will remain dependent on Russia for rides to the station, a service that costs taxpayers about $60 million per seat.
NASA, of course, has developed human space transportation systems before, but never like what is envisioned in the so-called Commercial Crew Program. Rather than footing the whole bill and dictating what the system should look like, NASA is working in partnership with selected firms, offering assistance when needed and paying when particular milestones are achieved. The goal is to have at least one and hopefully two or more companies capable of flying people in orbit as soon as possible. The next phase of the program is expected to commence in February.
Overseeing the effort is Edward Mango, who joined NASA at the Kennedy Space Center in 1986. He spoke with Space News correspondent Irene Klotz.
What is NASA’s procurement strategy for commercial crew?
This next phase is going to be really focused on integrative capabilities. We need a system that is not just spacecraft-related or launch vehicle-related. It has to have the four quadrants — spacecraft, launch vehicle, ground ops and mission ops — and it’s by doing all four of those that we’ll have an integrated capability that we can move forward with.
During this phase we’ll be doing it through a Space Act Agreement (SAA) approach, but it’s always been a requirement that if we are going to certify a system for a NASA need, then we’ll have to do that with a contract. The government cannot buy services, or hardware, under an SAA, so at some point if we want them to meet our requirements directly, line by line, then we have to work within a contract.
Why is that the case? NASA flies people on Southwest Airlines.
And we contract with them. Every time you buy a ticket you have a contract. It’s a contract between you — the passenger — and the airline.
But you’re not certifying their airplanes that they’re safe for flight.
In the aviation environment, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has certified not only the aircraft manufacturer but also the operator, so as the flying public we look at that as the ability to provide a safe flight from point A to point B.
The FAA is looking at doing this for crewed commercial launch systems NASA isn’t investing in. Why is it necessary for NASA to do certifications if the FAA is going to be doing it anyway?
If industry was capable of building a spacecraft to go do this mission today and the FAA was ready with a set of regulations for human spaceflight, then we could go do something like was done in the airlines. But even when the airlines started, the airlines were flying at first not as airlines for passengers but for airmail that the government contracted them to go do.
Since we don’t have a number of companies that are already flying people into low Earth orbit today on their own nickel, and the FAA is not ready today to put out a number of regulations they would need for safe human flight, NASA is trying very much to help create a commercial environment for folks to go to low Earth orbit.
Down the line, we hope to have multiple companies that can fly to low Earth orbit with multiple ways to get there and the FAA ready to license for all phases of flight, including orbital flight and passengers and astronauts and flight crew. In a generation or two from now, NASA would very much like to be in the same boat where you buy a ticket and go fly. That’s not going to happen in the next five years, but I would hope that it would happen in the next generation and that’s what we’re trying to build a foundation for today.
I know you probably can’t say anything about the budget request for fiscal year 2013, but are you pretty optimistic about what your number is going to be?
In fiscal year 2012, we’re at $406 million. It’s higher than what we got last year, so that’s good. If we want to try to close the gap, if we want to try to fly sometime in the middle of the decade, I would say that we’re going to need more than $406 million per year in order to fly by the first part of the second half of the decade.
I assume you mean with more than one company funded?
Competition is very important. We could have narrowed down to one and if we had done that under a contract approach we might have not selected the best long-term solution for the American government, or even from a commercial standpoint, because then we would have been really zoned in on our needs only and not on a broader capability to go create a commercial capability. And as you know, whenever you have competition, you end up with a better price and a better product.
How many other companies are there in this business that are not getting NASA money?
Well today we have seven Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) partners; four are funded and three unfunded, and any of those can take off and create a whole system on their own. There could be others.
The next big milestone coming up is Space Exploration Technologies’ () cargo demonstration flight. What are you looking for in that flight, from your office’s perspective?
A test flight is always a challenge for any team, so the fact that they are going to execute the mission I think in itself is a huge success. We would like to see how many objectives they meet, how close they get to their objectives. The biggest part about a learning organization is how do they learn from the in-flight issues, the in-flight anomalies they might pick up, because any test flight is a test flight for a reason. It’s not a service mission. There is risk laid into a test flight. So to say you’re going to be 100 percent, I think that would be setting the mark real high. Obviously we would like everything to be right, but in spaceflight we’re always learning.
How important is this next flight to SpaceX’s pursuit of a commercial crew award?
For SpaceX, you’d have to ask them what they think their posture is, but they’re also the first ones at the gate ready to go, so there’s always pressure to be in the lead in any race. Anytime you’re in a race and you’re the first one, everyone behind you wants to catch up to you. In my mind, it’s no higher risk — it’s just coming earlier than other partners because other partners aren’t ready to fly today.
So if SpaceX had some failure or anomaly, that shouldn’t necessarily hurt their chances in the commercial crew competition?
I would say how they respond to that is the most important part.
What are the indemnification and liability issues that still need to be resolved in the Commercial Crew Program?
For this next round, there is no indemnification provided because it’s a Space Act Agreement. If they would like to fly anything in the next round and they think that they need a license, they’ve got to go independently to the FAA and work on a license. We are not providing that service for them.
Long term, I think there are a number of models we can follow. We can follow the classic shuttle model, but we’re trying to move away from that because we want this to be more commercial. We can follow a model that the FAA uses for licensing. We can do it like the launch services program. They have a contract and there are certain indemnification parameters within that contract that we can follow. So there are a number of different models we can use.
You’ve said this program is not about new technology. What would be the deal breaker for this program?
The deal breaker is twofold: First, that there’s not enough funding, so then the United States has to rely on foreign carriers to get our crews to the international space station. The second is the integration of systems, which is really the biggest thing that we’re doing — we’re taking systems that are either designed or are being modified for this application and sticking them together as an integrated system.
Under the Ares 1 program, putting the spacecraft and the launch vehicle together created a lot of issues. Working those took a lot longer than I think folks had anticipated. So that is a technical challenge that is ahead of us.
Do you find it an oxymoron that the government is trying to take a lead role in a commercial development?
Government has a job to spur industry. I have requirements today for a NASA need, which is to get to the international space station. I also believe that it is the purpose of the government to help commerce to move forward, that we are also spurring industry to have capability to get to low Earth orbit. It is similar to how railroads were developed in this country. It is similar to how the airmail system moved from a fully government system to a private enterprise system and eventually into the airlines.
How many NASA people are involved in commercial crew?
I have a program of 50 people. That’s unheard of for a human spaceflight program.