Marshall Director Calls Commercial Crew Capsules Part of Equation

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WASHINGTON — NASA must take advantage of the growing commercial spaceflight industry and rely more on international partners if it hopes to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, said a senior agency official charged with overseeing development of NASA’s next generation of Moon rockets.

Speaking to an audience of government officials, lawmakers and industry representatives during a Dec. 3 Space Transportation Association breakfast on Capitol Hill, Robert Lightfoot, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said outsourcing spaceflight operations to and from the international space station will enable NASA to focus on loftier goals.

“If we can get the commercial operators to get to low Earth [orbit] access, get that access in place, then NASA can focus on getting out of low Earth orbit,” said Lightfoot, who took the helm at Marshall in August. “Our goal is to enable them, not fight them. We’ve got to get past the tyranny of ‘or’ — commercial or NASA — and we’ve got to get to the power of ‘and’ — commercial and NASA — to be successful.”

Lightfoot said Marshall will “push pretty hard” to enable a successful commercial spaceflight industry.

“If you look at COTS, and if you look at what we’re doing to supply the station once shuttle is gone, we depend on those guys,” he said, referring to NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contracts with Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies and Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. The COTS effort is intended to incubate a commercial space station logistics and crew transportation service for the space station. “We’ve got to make sure they’re successful as well.”

In addition, Lightfoot said NASA will need to rely more on international partners if the agency expects to return astronauts to the Moon.

“International cooperation is going to be critical for us to get out of low Earth obit,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to do this by ourselves, but I think we can take the lead there.”

Addressing what he characterized as the “900-pound gorilla in the room,” Lightfoot said NASA is still assessing a report by a White House-appointed panel tasked in May with developing options for the future of U.S. human space exploration. The current strategy entails replacing the space shuttle with vehicles optimized for a return to the Moon. This hardware is being developed through a program dubbed Constellation.

The expert panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, found Constellation, which includes the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares family of launchers, to be incompatible with NASA’s budget outlook. In its report, issued Oct. 22, the panel outlined scenarios that would entail canceling the Ares 1 rocket, currently in development at Marshall, which would launch the Orion capsule into space. As an alternative, the panel said, NASA could rely on the private sector to transport astronauts to and from low Earth orbit.

“They’ve provided their final report, and we’re going to provide some recommendations for the administration, some feedback to the administration on that report,” said Lightfoot, who manages a staff of more than 7,600 civil servants and contractors and an annual budget of $2.6 billion. Later, in remarks following the breakfast, Lightfoot acknowledged Marshall’s participation in a study of heavy-lift launch options, including those outlined in the Augustine panel’s final report. Lightfoot said the effort is part of a broader fact-finding effort to provide NASA Administrator Charles Bolden with data that will help inform President Barack Obama’s decision on the path ahead.

“It’s just part of a bunch of stuff that’s going on to provide the data back to Charlie so he can get an integrated look at what the right approach should be,” Lightfoot said, adding that the process is ongoing and that Bolden had not yet briefed the president. “We’re going to get all of this together and then we’re going to go see the administration,” he said. “I just don’t know when that is.”

In the meantime, Lightfoot told the audience the Ares development team “has been pressing pretty hard, making a lot of progress.” He noted that the Constellation program completed two major design reviews this year, and that “they continue to make their milestones [and] to hit all of the things that they need to do.”

Lightfoot said that in addition to developing the Ares 1 and heavy-lift Ares 5 rockets, Marshall is committed to safely flying the remaining five space shuttle missions to the international space station before NASA retires the fleet next year.

“There’s a lot of talk about the future, but we’ve got to talk about the present,” he said. “There’s nothing more important for us than flying the shuttle safely.”

Lightfoot said Marshall is also focused on developing and maturing new technologies that allow humans to live and work in space.

“We’ve delivered a couple of systems for the space station, an oxygen generation system and water recovery system,” he said, adding that his staff is fixing a distillation assembly on the water recovery system’s urine processor. “So we’re learning — and this is all, in my opinion, so critical for us to go beyond low Earth orbit. This is exactly the kind of stuff the space station was put there for.”

In addition to space exploration programs, Lightfoot said, Marshall oversees several science programs, including testing of a prototype robotic lunar lander.

“Hopefully we’ll use this as a test bed for a lot of people to do some test events, and once we get it on the Moon the goal is we’re going to measure the Moon quakes, and study the resources on the lunar surface and gather some more information, again, as precursors to humans going back there,” he said.