lmost three years ago, Mike Griffin marched into NASA ready to take on the solar system. Like many, we in the Space Frontier Foundation welcomed his arrival as NASA administrator as a breath of fresh air, knowing he was committed to real change, and hoping that much of the change would be for the better.
Many times since, of course, the NewSpace community has been disappointed by the reality of what
actually could deliver, or worse still, by billions of dollars being spent on the same old players doing the same old expensive, unsustainable things.
And so when the administrator and his team pull off a real accomplishment, a breakthrough from the traditional mindset that NASA always requires specialized hardware for its exclusive use, we want to jump up and yell “now that’s the Mike Griffin we know and love!” In that context, NASA’s recent announcement that it will buy up to $25.4 million in commercial parabolic flight services from Zero Gravity Corp. is, on several levels, a true hallelujah moment for the NewSpace industry.
First, the number of times NASA has bought a fixed-price, commercial terms service related to human spaceflight from a U.S. commercial provider is,
. Any proof that entrepreneurship and true capitalism is possible when in-service astronauts are involved is fantastic.
Second, this is an idea that’s been talked about in space policy circles for more than a dozen years. Back in 1995, when congressional Republicans still believed more in enterprise than earmarks, there was a stalled attempt to force complete privatization of NASA’s parabolic flight operations. It’s a joy to discover that not all good ideas stay buried forever.
Third, those more privy to the details tell us that this procurement required a lot of political capital from Griffin and his deputy, Shana Dale, and that a number of his key staffers devoted an incredible amount of hard work to pull it off. A lot of people deserve public recognition for this, not least are Chris Shank, Michael Coats, Steve Miley and the procurement team at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.
Last, but most importantly, this announcement is a strong positive signal to the NewSpace companies trying to develop Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) systems and other capabilities that NASA needs. Up until now, many of us could – and regularly did – say to NASA: “How can you expect industry to raise tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a service on the promise that NASA will buy, when it won’t even buy an existing commercial parabolic flight service from Zero Gravity Corp.?”
While this announcement doesn’t guarantee that NASA will buy international space station
cargo delivery or crew transfer flights from any of the COTS teams, it at least constitutes an existence proof
– as much for long-suffering believers in commercial approaches inside NASA as for those of us on the outside
– that privatization is feasible
. This contract is proof that a committed team of change agents inside the agency can in fact pioneer a path
towards capitalist-style acquisition, risking their sleep, well being and even their careers.
Of course, this is just one purchase, and while it provides NASA the ability to purchase up to 80 parabolic flights per year, the agency in reality is only required to buy a minimum of four flights. In addition, Zero-G still has to prove that it can deliver the quality of service NASA needs, and NASA certainly isn’t going to shut down its own C-9 parabolic flight aircraft anytime soon.
That said, for decades NASA poohbahs have told space entrepreneurs and their advocates, like we in the Space Frontier Foundation, that commercial services contracts aren’t “space commercialization,” and that private companies must develop systems using private capital, without help from NASA, to pursue purely private markets.
Only then, maybe, NASA will buy from them.
Well, Zero Gravity Corp. did just that. Today, finally, NASA is meeting them part way.
James Muncy and Bob Werb are two of the three co-founders of the Space Frontier Foundation, an organization of people dedicated to opening the space frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible.