After more than 30 years in government service, Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former U.S. Navy pilot and one of NASA’s most experienced astronauts, left in March to take over as president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry-backed advocacy organization.
The post requires a different kind of delicacy than spacewalking, which Lopez-Alegria has done 10 times — more than any other American. His training and experience, including a seven-month stint as commander of the international space station, should help him navigate the tricky political waters that could nurture or drown fledgling efforts to develop commercial space taxis for NASA.
The Commercial Crew Program, which is intended to give NASA at least two U.S. options for flying astronauts to the international space station (ISS), is funded at $406 million this year. Current congressional spending proposals for the year beginning Oct. 1 cut President Barack Obama’s $830 million request for commercial crew to about $500 million.
Lopez-Alegria, who turns 54 this month, recently spoke with Space News correspondent Irene Klotz.
Can you see any way that next year commercial crew will come out with more than about $500 million?
First, there’s a lot of process that has to happen before the final number comes out. Second, nobody really believes we’re going to have a budget signed this year. It’ll probably be a continuing resolution until at least after the election.
Third is the point about competition. That’s such a fundamental part of this new way of doing business. You can argue about whether the program can survive with this hundred million or that hundred million, but the program in my view can’t do very well with only one competitor. I think that just blows it out of the water.
How would a continuing resolution impact the next round of the commercial crew competition?
Almost no matter what happens, the award for the next round will be made before this legislation is passed, even in the best of cases. In July or August is when NASA is proposing to make the awards, and no matter what, the budget won’t be done until the end of the fiscal year at the very best case. I think what becomes important is if the House language that restricts the number of selectees is maintained at that point, whatever point that is, how much does NASA want to poke Congress in the eye by ignoring it? Even though it isn’t law — and by the way it’ll never be law because it’s only in report language — but it’ll be out there. Even if it’s out there and not yet voted on formally, it’s something that NASA has to take into consideration.
The administration came out with some language commenting on the entire Commerce, Justice and Science bill on the House side and dedicating a whole paragraph to NASA that basically decries the low funding level and — in even stronger language — says that we’ve got to not have restrictive language about reducing the number of selectees. So that to me sends a signal that NASA and the administration are willing to not adhere to any report language that might exist at that time in the current form of the bill. But that’s not my call, clearly.
How do you like this view of the political process?
It’s complicated. I knew it would be different. There are good days and bad days. Sometimes you’re a little dismayed at how the country’s political process works. On the other hand, that’s the process that we have and you may as well try to get the best with it and influence it in the best way you can. I think that spirit of compromise and adjustment to a completely different kind of playing field is one of the challenges that I’m trying to get my arms around.
What else is on Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s agenda?
Commercial crew obviously is a very high-visibility topic. Something that’s less visible but I think no less exciting is the whole suborbital market. We have about half a dozen companies that are trying to be the first to make suborbital commercial flights routine. And some of them are pretty close. What I have learned, which is even more exciting, is that not all of them are interested in space tourism. A very big part of the market is taking science experiments and technology demonstrations into space, trying to make a market that is accessible to more people because of the much reduced price compared with a long-duration flight on the ISS, for example. None of those companies relies on government funding, so what we do for them has a lot less to do with budget process and more to do with the regulation side, which is mostly with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
What regulatory issues are you working on?
Licensing, liability and just the regulation environment in general. Obviously we want to keep regulation as minimal as possible because the tighter you make all that kind of stuff, the harder it is for people to fly. Our philosophy is we think the FAA should work hard to protect the public, those who are not flying on the vehicle, but let the vehicle providers and anybody who wants to ride on them worry about their own safety so that we don’t stifle the growth of this nascent industry.
So do you have a ticket to ride on Virgin Galactic, or XCOR, or one of the other companies?
I worked in the government too long to be able to afford anything like that yet.
It’s not just government workers who can’t afford that. Is that something you think is a possibility for you, to take another ride into space as a passenger?
I haven’t thought too much about that, to be honest with you. I’m still enamored with doing something like that, not as a passenger but as a pilot. Obviously that’s not in the cards in my current job. It’s a little addicting once you’ve done it a few times.
What do you see as the pitfalls for commercial space?
It depends on which of the two sectors we’re talking about. For the suborbital guys, I think the risk is smaller, only because first of all there are more of them, and second because they’re not relying on government funding. A couple of the companies have had failures already and that’s just part of development. Anytime you do something that’s this difficult you should expect failure.
On the orbital side, it’s much more visible. The whole funding debate is balancing on a razor’s edge and a bad accident could tip that in the wrong direction. So there’s a lot riding on the first few players here and everybody knows it. It’s unfortunate that so much opinion will be swayed by what happens, I think, both in the good sense and the bad sense, meaning that a failure is somehow going to doom the industry. That would be a terrible mistake. However, emotionally it’s hard to talk people out of that.
There’s no doubt that accidents are going to happen, hopefully they won’t hurt anybody. Failures are part of any kind of test and development system. We just have to be a little more open to that kind of possibility and realize that Rome wasn’t built in a day. It takes time to get these systems just right.
How important isSpaceX’s first demonstration flight to ISS?
There’s no doubt that it’s important. I think that, again, we’d like to have people emotionally remove themselves from that so that anything short of a 100 percent success doesn’t spell the end of government-funded commercial spaceflight. If they achieve all their objectives, which are many, that’ll be fantastic. If they don’t achieve all of them, it will still be an achievement that’s worthy of continuing the program. The thing we all hope doesn’t happen is some sort of spectacular failure. So far, they’ve done well with the Falcon 9 and we’ll be rooting for them, along with everybody else.
Are you following the efforts to develop the ISS as a national laboratory and related commercialization initiatives?
The fact that they made this thing a national lab is promising because that opens up the field to a lot of entities that might not otherwise be interested or involved. It seems to me that there are lots of entrepreneurial, nimble, innovative companies out there that are trying to get folks into space and there are those out there interested in using space, so whether it’s on the ISS or on another commercial platform that might be up there one day, I think the whole utilization thing is kind of in the future. Transportation is how you get there, but then what do you do once you’re there? That’s the next question we ask ourselves.
Do you have some specific goals in your position with the federation?
I have a couple of things. I think the most important one is that when the fiscal year 2011 budget was rolled out and it canceled Constellation and it instituted the Commercial Crew Program, that created a real division between those two programs and people who were on each side of them, so loosely speaking “old space” and “new space.” I think that was very unfortunate and something that we’re living with two years later. My crusade, if you will, is to try to blur, if not erase, that line between “old space” and “new space,” between Space Launch System/Orion and commercial crew. These are programs that have to co-exist. They have different destinations; they must be executed in parallel to achieve our human space transportation policy. It’s true that we are all eating from the same trough, which is the government allocation, the pie that NASA gets. But rather than fighting each other for how big our respective slices should be, I think we should be fighting together for a bigger pie.