Every new astronaut experiences The Moment, and Jim Voss will never forget his. It was November 1991, and the veteran NASA engineer was aboard the Atlantis shuttle to deploy a defense satellite and conduct experiments. The crew had gotten into orbit, and Voss was busy going through his prepared routine.
Just as he was floating up to the flight deck, he happened to glance out the window and—bam!—he saw it: this huge and incredible bright blue planet against the blackness, Earth. Voss froze. “It just grabbed me,” he says. “I watched it go by for I don’t know how long. I had dreamed about doing that for so long. And now I want to keep that dream alive.”
When Voss, now the vice president of space exploration systems at Sierra Nevada and program executive of the Dream Chaser, tells this story, it’s not just a former astronaut getting misty. It illustrates what people are really talking about when they discuss the future of NASA: the majestic promise of spaceflight, and who gets to fulfill it. In the past, people took comfort (rightly or not) in thinking that NASA had everything under its own control. But the government is not in the space business by itself anymore. NASA’s reliance on commercial industry means that the agency cannot get to the finish line alone, or even just with the Russians. Instead it must work with the private developers to maintain both integrity and safety.
This requires people like Sirangelo—who chairs the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the industry’s association—to be part engineer, part salesman. The $50 million in seed money from NASA is just the first step. “It’s a kick-start, some level of guarantee of usage,” says Voss, who compares this stage of private spaceflight to the early days of the aviation industry. “No one knows what the regulations will be. No one knows what the rules will be. It’s not that we haven’t been to space, it’s just all been government controlled.”
So far NASA is hedging its bets, spreading out money to a variety of companies, each of which is creating a different kind of vehicle or program. The Dream Chaser is the only lifting body design in the competition to build a new crew vehicle. But there are six other companies in the mix. One notable is SpaceX, which is pursuing a capsule design somewhat like the one that carried the Apollo astronauts.
Before any of that private hardware takes flight, NASA and its new corporate partners must address the biggest issue: keeping the next generation of astronauts safe. Although there have been a handful of fatalities involving the Soyuz (most recently in 1971), it comes with a flight heritage of more than 100 successful missions. As Scott Pace puts it, “That heritage doesn’t yet exist with these commercial firms.” Texas congressman Pete Olson, the ranking Republican on the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, echoes this refrain. “NASA has to prove, before we put a human in it, that it has a vehicle that’s safe and reliable,” he says. “We have to give the astronaut the ultimate chance to come home.”
NASA expresses confidence that commercial companies are up to the job. “We expect them to be as safe as anything we’d build and fly ourselves,” Lindenmoyer says. “Before you put a human being, certainly a NASA crew member, on board, you have to have met those standards for safety.” The companies will manage their own designs, he notes, but they are not getting paid in advance. In order to receive money from NASA, they have to meet various milestones.
“NASA is not abandoning its role,” Sirangelo says. “It’s our boss. Safety standards have to be met. The notion that our vehicle would be less safe because it’s coming from a commercial company is ludicrous.” He particularly bristles at the idea that his company is untested: “The idea that we are start-up people in a garage is just not true. We are a qualified space company with a long history. The only difference is the approach to the work being done.”
President Obama made a similar point in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center last April 15. “Now, I recognize that some have said it is unfeasible or unwise to work with the private sector in this way,” he said. “I disagree. The truth is, NASA has always relied on private industry to help design and build the vehicles that carry astronauts to space, from the Mercury capsule that carried John Glenn into orbit nearly 50 years ago to the space shuttle Discovery currently orbiting overhead.”
Indeed, companies like Sierra Nevada have been developing spacecraft and satellites for NASA for decades. But the nature of that relationship is fundamentally changing. In the past NASA was calling the shots: overseeing the design of a system, then owning and operating it once all the parts were complete. Now the roles have changed, with NASA assuming the position of a vested buyer.
“This is a partnership, with NASA as the lead investor and the company as the owner and operator of these systems,” Lindenmoyer says. “We’re not providing the specifications for designing these systems. What we are providing is a set of goals and objectives. We’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re a very interested customer, but we’re not trying to stimulate a system that’s good only for government use. We want to see systems that are cost effective, that can open new markets for space, and that are good for the economy.”
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