SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In the wake of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Corp.’s successful docking of its Dragon cargo capsule with the international space station, NASA officials are looking for ways to establish new commercial partnerships to help the space agency accomplish its goals.

“We’ve had discussions in the past few months on how we could apply this in other areas of NASA, not just human spaceflight,” David Radzanowski, NASA chief of staff, said July 26 at the NewSpace conference here. While no specific ventures have yet been identified, Radzanowski said, “stay tuned.”

In the future, NASA is likely to pay commercial firms for data and services rather than hire companies to build spacecraft or other types of technology to accomplish specific types of missions. “We are talking about paying for milestones once they have been achieved and once a capability has been demonstrated,” Radzanowski said. “Budgets aren’t going to grow and we have very far-reaching goals. To achieve those goals, we need to think about alternative ways of acquiring capabilities.”

For example, NASA might turn to commercial partners for assistance in sending spacecraft to destinations beyond low Earth orbit such as asteroids or Mars. The space agency is paying companies to develop the Orion deep-space crew capsule and heavy-lift Space Launch System using a traditional procurement approach, which features carefully defined requirements and continuous government funding. Once those vehicles are completed, however, many additional capabilities will be needed to enable NASA to carry out future deep-space exploration missions.

“We will need a lot of propellant,” Radzanowski said. “We may need data from precursor missions. Maybe, instead of building a mission to get that data, we would partner with private industry to buy data.”

Through the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, NASA and its commercial partners shared the cost of developing two new space station cargo-delivery ships. The space agency provided the firms with a limited number of requirements related to visiting the station but did not define how the spacecraft should be built. In addition, NASA paid SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., only when the firms accomplished specific milestones.

Overall, NASA invested approximately $800 million in the development of two launch vehicles and two cargo carriers designed to rendezvous and berth with the international space station. “Not a bad deal when you look at what we, as taxpayers, got for the investment that we made,” said Dennis Stone, program integration manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “Furthermore, these two launchers and cargo carriers are company owned, company operated and available not only to the government but to other customers as well.”

In May, SpaceX succeeded in delivering cargo to the international space station. Orbital’s Antares rocket is expected to conduct its first demonstration flight this fall.

In spite of its early success, the COTS procurement model should only be applied when NASA intends to buy specific services or technologies that are likely to attract commercial customers, which can be extremely difficult to predict, Stone said. “Who believes there may eventually be a commercial market for a service that can transport payloads to the surface of Mars?” Stone asked. “It’s nearly impossible to prove that with data. Other than using our gut feel, how do we know when it’s safe to use the partnership method?”

In addition to working with commercial firms to deliver space station cargo, NASA is seeking commercial transportation for astronauts. The space agency will soon announce Space Act Agreements through which it will provide two to three companies with funds to continue developing commercial crew transportation vehicles under the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability, or CCiCap, program. NASA also may contribute expertise or facilities to support firms that are not awarded CCiCap money through unfunded Space Act Agreements.

“Private industry has to decide whether to approach NASA for an unfunded Space Act Agreement,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA headquarters. “We are open to that.”

The CCiCap Space Act Agreements will cover a period of 21 months and include optional milestones that extend the program to the first passenger flight, McAlister said. Commercial crew services will be purchased through “full and open competition,” he added. “If someone does not win this current round [of the commercial crew program], we do not want to preclude them from future rounds.”

In April 2011, NASA awarded funding for the design of crew carrying ships to: Blue Origin of Kent, Wash.; Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev.; SpaceX; and Boeing Space Exploration of Houston. In addition, NASA has provided support through a funded Space Act Agreement with Denver-based United Launch Alliance, and through unfunded arrangements with Excalibur Almaz Inc. of Houston and a team led by Minneapolis-based Alliant Techsystems and Astrium Space Transportation of France.

NASA officials have been impressed with the progress companies have made developing commercial cargo and crew vehicles, but that does not mean commercial partnerships should be established “willy-nilly,” McAlister said. “We have to look at what we are trying to accomplish and figure out the best way to do it. When you have NASA need and private industry demand, commercial partnerships make a lot of sense.”

Even when NASA officials determine that a public-private partnership makes sense, establishing each partnership presents challenges, agency officials said. Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., said the major impediments to working with commercial partners are: NASA headquarters, Congress and the White House. Worden said he was joking, but added that NASA has “a lot of laws and a lot of regulations that are not always conducive to good commercial practices.”

Fortunately, NASA also has “an incredibly powerful tool called a Space Act Agreement, which in essence says you can do anything that is not prohibited by law,” Worden said. “This gives us a huge hole to drive trucks through.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...