NTB: Who else is NASA working with on this?
McAlister: Currently, our industry partners include small, non-traditional companies like Blue Origin all the way up to large, established firms like Boeing. In between, we’re also partnering with SpaceX Orbital Sciences and Sierra Nevada. However, we anticipate making awards for the full, end-to-end commercial transportation system for the crew transportation sometime next year, and those awards will be open to any US company.
NTB: How does the award process work?
McAlister: I like to think of NASA as an investor in these initiatives. We are investing both financial and technical resources in order to make our industry partners successful in developing safe, reliable, and cost-effective commercial crew and cargo systems. In the longer term, NASA plans to be a reliable customer for these services, buying transportation services for US and US-designated astronauts to the International Space Station. We really hope that these activities will stimulate the development of a new industry that will be available to all potential purchasers, not just the US government.
NTB: What do you see as the opportunities for economic growth? How will commercial spaceflight potentially create new markets and spur growth?
McAlister: On the cargo side, just three years ago, the United States market share for commercial launches was just around 15 percent, which is historically not very large. However, just last year, SpaceX was awarded possibly the largest commercial launch vehicle contract in history. I believe that that contract award was made possible in part because of NASA’s investment in the Commercial Cargo project.
Regarding crew today, if you want to fly to lower orbit or the International Space Station, Russia’s Soyuz system is the only vehicle from which you can procure a ride. The Soyuz is an excellent vehicle, but you can only fly one, maybe two, passengers per flight, and its annual flight rate is extremely limited. However, the demand for human transportation in lower orbit appears to be very robust. NASA just delivered a report to Congress, “Commercial Market Assessment for Crew and Cargo Systems,” which concluded that the potential demand could be many times the available supply via Soyuz. We hope the commercial crew program will enable the US to capture this potentially very large high-tech market.
NTB: What do you consider a “next-generation” spacecraft to look like?
McAlister: Concerning the commercial crew program, we’re not really trying to push the state of the art. We’re trying to develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective crew transportation systems. We just need really good sound engineering. We want to do that mission as simple and cost-effective as possible.
We’ve seen a variety of different designs from industry. Several of our partners have a very simple capsule design, while some of our other industry partners have winged vehicles. I anticipate it’ll be something along those lines, going forward, but, again, I don’t foresee it to be a big breakthrough in terms of technology. We just need to really focus on the mission, making it as simple and robust and cost-effective as possible.
NTB: Can you take us through another example of the kinds of commercial technologies, through the partnerships, that are enabling these spaceflight initiatives and projects?
McAlister: In terms of CCDev2, you can actually go online and you can see the space act agreements that we have with our core partners, and those space act agreements describe specific scope and content that the partners will be performing over the next year. You can access those agreements at http://procurement. Ksc.nasa.gov. All of our partners are really focusing on the long-lead items that are required to mature their design and development efforts. Blue Origin is focusing on their overall crew module; Sierra Nevada is looking to mature their overall system to about a preliminary design review level of maturity, as is Boeing with their capsule and launch vehicle system.
NTB: Why do you consider commercial spaceflight to be such an important initiative today?
McAlister: There are many reasons for that. The commercial crew and cargo initiatives will provide assured access to the International Space Station, strengthening America’s space industrial base and provide a catalyst for future business ventures to capitalize on affordable access to space. A vibrant commercial space industry will add well-paying high tech jobs to the US economy, and it will allow NASA to focus its efforts beyond lower-orbit exploration, enabling us to go further and faster in our exploration of the solar system.
The space shuttle has been the backbone of our nation’s human spaceflight efforts for more than 30 years, but soon that amazing program is going to come to end, and with it, America’s ability to transport people into space. That would leave only two entities in the world that can launch people into lower orbit: the governments of Russia and China. This reality represents a significant threat, in my opinion, to US leadership in space, something that has been unquestioned since the days of Apollo. While the Russian Soyuz is an excellent vehicle, and the Russians are valued partners on the International Space Station program, depending solely on a single Russian system to divide human access to the ISS threatens the very survival of that national asset. I believe that commercial crew and cargo initiatives are the quickest and most effective way to end the gap and provide assured access to the ISS.