NASA to rely more on private space for deep space missions


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Capitalism in space: NASA officials stated this weekthat they plan to rely more on private space companies for its future deep space missions.

NASA’s statement is the most direct agency indication so far that projected U.S. government funding may need to leverage private-sector investments and commercial expertise in order for crews to fulfill the agency’s target of reaching Mars by the late 2030s and establishing settlements there by the 2040s. NASA said it also expected to persuade some foreign governments to participate in crewed voyages to Mars.

William Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s human-exploration office, wrote to the inspector general that efforts to use private cargo rockets as part of the overall drive to send crews to Mars “are continual and will also be reflected in the exploration road map” slated for delivery to Congress at the end of 2017.

This story is merely noting NASA’s response to the recommendations of the NASA inspector general report [pdf] that came out earlier in the week that noted the delays and costs of SLS/Orion and suggested alternative approaches. What that response indicates is that NASA is increasingly bending to the cost pressures that they face with SLS/Orion, and are now more willing to consider private and less expensive and quicker alternatives.

The Inspector General (IG) report is itself a sign that the agency and the executive branch is beginning to see the light about the ineffectiveness of SLS/Orion. Previous IG reports in the past five years have tiptoed around the delays and gigantic cost of SLS/Orion. If anything, they were written to allow NASA to prepare Congress and the public for more delays and larger budgets. This report however was much more blunt and critical, and went out of its way to outline alternatives to SLS/Orion.

Another sign that the political winds are shifting is this story about a request by 20 House members to the Air Force to expand its program encouraging the development of competing private launch systems. In the past some of these same House members had tried to force particular companies and products on the Air Force and on ULA. Now they seem more willing to let the Air Force put out the bids competitively and allow the chips to fall where they may.

More important is this quote about two members who did not sign the letter request:

Absent from the list of members who signed the [letter] are Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairmen of the full House Armed Services Committee and its Strategic Forces Subcommittee, respectively. In February, the two sent a letter to Acting Secretary of the Air Force Lisa Disbrow and James MacStravic, performing the duties of the under secretary of defense for acquisition, calling on the government to have “full access to, oversight of, and approval rights over decision-making about any engine down-select for Vulcan (assuming they will be requesting government funding).”

In the letter, they argued that since ULA is accepting government funding to support the development of Vulcan, the government should also have insight into that process, “especially where one of the technologies is unproven at the required size and power.” That was a reference to Blue Origin’s BE-4, which will be the largest rocket engine developed to date using methane as a fuel, rather than the kerosene used by the RD-180 and AR1 engines.

Thornberry has since backtracked on the comments in that letter, telling reporters last month it was not his intent to micromanage subcontracting decisions.

Rogers, in a recent SpaceNews interview, said he was not satisfied with the pace of development of an RD-180 replacement, but also praised the capabilities of commercial launch companies. “My subcommittee, our full committee, this Congress, is committed to not stop until we have an American-made engine that can get our national security space assets launched,” he said. [emphasis mine]

That these congressmen appear to be backing off from pushing their favorite rockets or insisting that the Air Force micromanage the development of these private rocket engines is a positive sign. It appears that there is increasing political pressure to support private development, free of government control.

3 comments

  • Tom Billings

    “It appears that there (is) increasing political pressure to support private development, free of government control.”

    Don’t get cocky, kid!

    The political pressure may be as little as Administration people sitting down with staffers from Shelby, Rogers, et al, and showing them the price lists for launches, and asking them, “How the hell do you expect us to defend a $2.5 Billion dollar launch in 2020?” While this is an obvious thing, it is gone whenever an Administration who does not bother comes into office, whether from lack of votes, lack of clout, or lack of interest.

  • Tom Billings: Heh. Cocky I ain’t. My conclusions are actually close to yours. Like you, I suspect there have been conversations in Congress and the White House about the cost of the older programs, and how unreasonable they are, and there is now discussion on how to fix this. The result? The IG was given hints that they could toughen up their report. Rogers and Thornberry make public comments indicating a rethinking.

    It is the rethinking that intrigues me. It indicates movement in the right direction.

  • I once heard the remark that if government was in charge of Western expansion we’d still be in Missouri. The analogy isn’t great or even good, but illustrates the point (fake but accurate).

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