NASA and its industry partners are developing a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable, and cost-effective access to and from low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station. Through a program begun in 2006, NASA is investing financial and technical resources to stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop these capabilities.
Phil McAlister (left) is NASA Commercial Spaceflight Development Director at NASA Head quarters in Washington, DC. He is a veteran of the space industry with experience in civil, military, and commercial space programs. Over his career, he has participated in the design and development of new launch vehicles, the redesign of the International Space Station, plus several commercial satellite endeavors.
Recently, Phil McAlister spoke with NASA Tech Briefs about how NASA’s partnerships with industry are shaping America’s next-generation human spaceflight.
NASA Tech Briefs: Recently, NASA’s 2014 budget was announced, with $814 million earmarked for commercial spaceflight. Will that enable the current activities to continue progressing over the next 12 months?
Phil McAlister: The $814 million request lets the program continue at a level we think is required in order to establish U.S. access to space by 2017. This is what we are targeting for operational services. We are partnering with industry by providing financial and technical assistance for them. Then we will certify the vehicles and spacecraft for launching NASA personnel to the International Space Station.
Between now and 2017, we will go through the certification process that basically confirms the vehicles are safe to fly NASA personnel. There will probably be a test program as part of that certification process. There will be some number of flights or test missions, and certainly I would think at least one of those missions will be crewed. After the test phase, if all goes according to plan, we will certify one or more vehicles. Then we will begin services — basically, transporting our astronauts up and down from the International Space Station. The start of services is what we are targeting for 2017. You might see some crewed flights before 2017, but they would be part of a test program.
NASA Tech Briefs: Can you explain NASA’s commercial space programs — the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and the Commercial Orbital Transpor tation Services (COTS)?
McAlister: We have two programs: the Commercial Cargo Program (or COTS) and the Commercial Crew Program [see sidebar on page 23]. The cargo program was started in 2005 and we currently have two partners: SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. We invested, very similar to the crew program, technical and financial resources to those two companies. Last year, SpaceX finished all their test milestones and they’ve started cargo resupply services to the International Space Station. Orbital Sciences is our other partner. They started about a year-and-ahalf after SpaceX, so they are a little bit behind. [Editor’s Note: At the time of this interview, Orbital had not yet testlaunched its Antares rocket. The successful launch occurred on April 21.]
For crew, it’s Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX. They all have a more aggressive schedule than NASA. They believe they can fly by 2015 for SpaceX, and maybe 2016 for Boeing and Sierra Nevada. NASA feels those are very aggressive schedules, so we have tacked on a year of reserve, and are targeting 2017. But the companies believe they can get there, and we are fine with that. If it turns out they do get there quicker, we’re not going to slow them down — we’ll let them accelerate. But in terms of our commitment to the external community, we feel comfortable with 2017.
NASA Tech Briefs: NASA’s initiative to work with the private sector to “commercialize” space is a significant shift in the Agency’s traditional spacecraft development programs. What are some of the factors that led NASA to make this shift? How is this partnership different from the way NASA has always worked with private industry in the past to build spacecraft?
McAlister: NASA has always had as part of its mission to commercialize space. That’s actually in the NASA Space Act, so we’ve been doing that most of NASA’s history, but we’ve never really done spacecraft development this way, where we shift a lot of the responsibility to industry, particularly in the human spaceflight world. That has traditionally been the domain of NASA.
There were five contributing factors. The first one is budget. We’re in a very challenging budget environment. We have to try and do things more cost effectively. When you’re in that kind of budget environment, there is a lot of history that says industry can move faster and they can be more cost effective when they are responsible for development.
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?
McAlister: 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?
McAlister: 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.
NASA Tech Briefs: What types of technologies will NASA and industry need to develop or adapt for this new program of manned space transportation?
McAlister: Each one of our partners has a very unique concept. Sierra Nevada has a lifting body that looks like a mini shuttle, and they want to implement a very innovative green propellant propulsion system that we think has potential. That’s a technology area that probably needs a little bit of development.
SpaceX and Boeing have their own areas in which they’re working, but I don’t really see it as technology enhancement. It’s really just good engineering. We know how to do liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen engines, and we know how to do kerosene propulsion systems. Each one of the companies is adapting their own systems. I don’t really characterize this as a technology program — it’s really just spacecraft and launch vehicle development.
We believe at NASA that we have a good integrated strategy for exploration. We believe our concepts for beyond low-Earth orbit — that feature the Space Launch System and the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle — are great programs. The way we’re doing those programs is the right approach for that mission. For low-Earth orbit, we’re shifting some of the responsibility to industry, and that frees NASA up to do the really hard thing, which is to go beyond low-Earth orbit.
So we really do not see this as a competition between low-Earth orbit and beyond low-Earth orbit. We believe it’s synergistic and complementary to our space strategy. We’re shifting responsibility for low-Earth orbit more towards private industry, and NASA is retaining the very difficult missions.