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A New American Space Age

Factor number two is that you can’t be pushing the state of the art in terms of technology. Transporting people to low-Earth orbit is a really hard mission. It’s one of the hardest things we do, but it’s also something we’ve been doing successfully for 40 years. We’ve had over 100 flights up and down to low-Earth orbit, so we’re really not pushing the state of the art. It just requires good, disciplined engineering, and we believe industry can do that. Since we’re not pushing the state of the art, we think that’s another factor that allows us to shift some of the responsibility to industry.

The third factor is that you need to have a fairly capable industrial base. Twenty years ago, it may not have been feasible to do commercial crew, but certainly within the last five years, we’ve really seen the commercial space industry take off. There are a number of companies that are both financially and technically capable of this mission.

The fourth factor is that you need to have the possibility or potential for non-government customers. If NASA was the only customer for this, I don’t know if we would be advocating doing it commercially, but there is definitely demand for human access to low-Earth orbit. We’ve seen between 8 and 10 space tourists fly to low-Earth orbit, and NASA flies astronauts from other countries that do not have a human spaceflight program — or we did when we had the space shuttle program. There are a lot of people who want to do research in low-Earth orbit. There is potential for customers other than NASA, so that’s another key ingredient.

The last factor is that the International Space Station provides an anchor tenant or base market. Companies can see that maybe the space tourism market is a little speculative, but this NASA market is definitely real. As long as the space station is up there, we’re going to need to fly our astronauts up, so it provides them with a base market that really makes this whole thing feasible.

NASA Tech Briefs: One concern about private companies taking humans to space is safety. Although private citizens have been traveling to space for more than a decade, the question of safety remains. How is NASA ensuring that industry will be able to provide reliable — and more importantly, safe — human access to space?

altMcAlister: We have two strategies with respect to safety. A key aspect of the program is to maintain competition. We’d like to be able to have more than one company through the development phase if budgets allow. We believe that competition not only supports cost effectiveness and short timelines, but it also enhances safety. We’ve seen that throughout the commercial crew program for the three years we’ve been in development. Each one of the companies is trying to knock themselves out to beat the other guys in terms of safety because they know that’s a key criterion for NASA to use when we evaluate these different systems.

The other approach we’re using is the certification process. We have our requirements for human spaceflight, and the companies have to meet those requirements in order for us to certify them as safe to fly our astronauts. That’s part of the partnership.

Industry is defining the “how,” and NASA is defining the “what.” We define what we want — we want crew transportation services to low-Earth orbit and we want them to meet our safety requirements — but how they’re going to meet those requirements, we’re really leaving up to industry. We feel that’s a very effective way to do spacecraft development when you’re not pushing the state of the art.

NASA Tech Briefs: Companies like Virgin Galactic have begun taking reservations for trips to space, and Space Adventures has been taking private citizens to space since 2001 and is currently planning a mission to the Moon. What is NASA’s position regarding such flights, and how closely does NASA work with these companies?

altMcAlister: I don’t think NASA takes any sort of official position on space tourism, but I’d say, in general, we’re supportive of any activity that people want to do in space. That’s what we’re about. So if a private company wants to do some space-related activity, I think NASA’s position in general is “good for them, good luck, and God speed.”

In terms of the specific companies, Virgin Galactic is private development — NASA is not contributing to that. Personally, I think it’s a really interesting concept. They have a lot of reservations and they look like they’re going to fly pretty soon. They’ve gone through a very rigorous test program that gives us confidence that private industry is not going to shortchange safety. They know that if they shortchange safety, they’ll be out of business, so they’re very incentivized for safe flight. We have confidence that those guys know what they’re doing. I do believe we have a contract with Virgin Galactic to potentially put payloads into suborbital space, and we have a contract with a number of others through our Flight Opportunities Program. We didn’t facilitate or invest in the development of Virgin Galactic — that was all done privately.

In terms of Space Adventures, that’s another company we wish the best for. They arrange for trips to low-Earth orbit through the Soyuz, and their lunar mission also utilizes the Soyuz spacecraft. We don’t contribute financially to Space Adventures, and we don’t use any of their services, but we wish them well.