What Is “Commercial Spaceflight?”
The charter set by U.S. President BarackObama for the Augustine Committee includes “stimulating commercial spaceflight capability” as one of its key objectives. A number of events have occurred recently that suggest that there is some confusion about the term “commercial spaceflight” and its current role in NASA’s Constellation architecture.
With the exception of the government-operated
space shuttle and the Russian Soyuz, the
government currently procures all orbital space launch services on a commercial basis from
commercial launch providers. NASA and the U.S. Air Force, for example, currently purchase all of their orbital satellite launches from the three
commercial launch operators: the United Launch Alliance (a Boeing-Lockheed joint venture), Orbital Sciences Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX).
NASA’s recent efforts to support commercial spaceflight seem to have created a perceived and erroneous conflict between NASA’s Constellation program and commercial crew and cargo services. Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) has always been a critical component of the Constellation architecture. By utilizing commercial services at commercial rates for servicing the international space station (ISS), NASA is allowed to focus its resources and expertise on the exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond.
Until recently, the COTS program has enjoyed virtually universal support on Capitol Hill and with the White House Office of Management and Budget. In the “FY 2008 NASA Appropriation Report,” the U.S. House of Representatives even included language “encourage[ing] NASA to consider exercising its option for … COTS Capability D (crew transport) as soon as possible.”
Should NASA decide to proceed with a new COTS Capability D (COTS-D) program, the competition would presumably be open to all potential
contractors. The primary difference between a commercial COTS-D program and the way NASA has traditionally procured human spaceflight services is in how the launch services are contracted. Specifically, unlike with cost-plus contracts traditionally used by NASA for development programs, the commercial COTS contracts are fixed-price and milestone-based, which means contractors are paid only if and when milestones are met. This type of contract minimizes the risk to taxpayers and the government.
Commercial space companies have been providing satellite launch services to the
government for the past 20 years. NASA’s COTS contracts and the recently awarded ISS Commercial Resupply Services contracts are simply an extension of this successful partnership.
As the government has proven in other markets such as aviation, biotech and the Internet, a small government investment at the early stages of an emerging industry can result in enormous economic dividends. These dividends come in the form of job creation and increased international competitiveness; all while the government gains real industry partners that will continue to innovate and grow to meet its future needs.
Vice President, Strategic Relations, SpaceX
Not the First New Engine
Robert Bigelow in his Commentary [“Sen. Shelby, Give Commercial a Chance,” June 8, page 27] made the incorrect statement that the Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Merlin engine is the first new rocket engine in three decades. This comment ignores the Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RS-68 Delta 4 engine, which has six times the thrust of the Merlin and uses the much more energetic hydrogen fuel.
The RS-68 was developed less than 10 years ago and had its first flight in 2002. The RS-68 demonstrated greatly reduced development time and cost and greatly reduced production cost. The Merlin turbopumps use the low-cost simplified design technology developed by Rocketdyne. Rocketdyne was funded by NASA to share the technology with Barber Nichols, the commercial pump manufacturer, so that Barber Nichols could supply these critical parts at low cost to companies developing commercial launch systems. Barber Nichols currently also makes parts of the RS-68 turbopump.
Many of the low cost technologies developed for RS-68 are also being applied to the ongoing J-2X development by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.
Stephen A. Evans