Phil McAlister, acting director of commercial spaceflight development, oversees the efforts of the Commercial Crew Development and Cargo programs. The dual initiatives spur efforts within the private sector to boost human spaceflight capabilities.
NASA Tech Briefs: As NASA’s acting director of commercial spaceflight development, what are your day-to-day responsibilities
Phil McAlister: My primary responsibility is to advise the mission directorate associate administrator on issues pertaining to design, development, and demonstration of NASA’s commercial spaceflight development efforts. Those efforts currently consist of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, which is being managed out of the Kennedy Space Center, and the Commercial Cargo project, which is managed out of Johnson Space Center (JSC).
Those two activities are in very different phases of their lifecycle. The Commercial Cargo project has been ongoing for about five years now, and it’s at the tail end of its development activity. We hope to have flights to the International Space Station by both of our partners, SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies Corp.] and Orbital Sciences Corp., by the end of this year.
By contrast, the Commercial Crew program is just starting out. As such, it requires much more of my attention on a day-to-day basis. Right now, I’m focused on the acquisition strategy associated with the Commercial Crew program. I also manage a small staff here at headquarters to assist in those efforts.
NTB: What are the Commercial Crew Development programs, and how do they operate?
McAlister: The “Round 2” set of Commercial Crew Development awards were given in April of this year. The goal of those awards is to stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and demonstrate human spaceflight capabilities that could ultimately lead to the availability of commercial human spaceflight services. We have four industry partners in CCDev2: Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp., and SpaceX. All four companies are focusing on long-lead items to mature their design and development efforts, with the overall objective of accelerating the availability of commercial crew services.
On the cargo side, SpaceX’s system is the Falcon 9, the Dragon capsule. Orbital Sciences is developing a Taurus-II launch vehicle with a Cygnus spacecraft on top to deliver cargo to the ISS.
NTB: What kinds of resources are currently needed for commercial spaceflight?
McAlister: In terms of cargo, NASA made an initial investment of about $500 million in 2006. That amount was augmented by $300 million in 2011, in order to reduce NASA’s risk. For that relatively modest investment, NASA sustains to gain access to two new launch vehicles, two new spacecraft capable of delivering cargo to the International Space Station, and the entire associated launch infrastructure.
I think this is very strong evidence that we can change the equation associated with space hardware development, given the right conditions. As far as Commercial Crew, we are just starting out, so we don’t know precisely how much money will be required to successfully execute that program. We have several activities underway to help us develop credible cost estimates, and we’re going to really be focusing on that in the months ahead. For fiscal year 2012, NASA’s requested $850 million for the Commercial Crew program. If we get that level of resources, or perhaps a little bit higher, over the next four or five years, I think it’s reasonable to assume that we will have at least one operational commercial crew transportation system by the middle of the decade.
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.
NTB: Are there any other capabilities that you envision?
McAlister: Right now, those are the two areas that we’re most focused on at NASA: commercial crew and cargo. I do envision future initiatives at some point down the road, but you need a fairly unique set of circumstances, in my opinion, to take on these projects in a commercial nature, under a commercial development initiative.
First, you definitely need the prospects for other customers. If NASA were the only customer, I would not be a proponent of doing these systems commercially. I don’t believe you should be pushing the state of the art, needing a lot of breakthroughs to bring these systems to market.
You also need a fairly strong and robust industrial base. I think we have that in certain areas. And you need to be doing a mission that is fairly straightforward and simple. So you put all those together, and I think right now the conditions exist for crew and cargo to lower orbit being done under this commercial development initiative. I don’t think there are others right now today that we can say have that same set of ingredients, but soon I think there will be a couple other areas that would be right for that kind of development.
NTB: What are your biggest challenges in getting these projects off the ground?
McAlister: There are significant challenges. We’re really changing the paradigm for human spaceflight development, and that is a significant challenge for NASA, the US aerospace industry, and the nation as a whole. I think there are some technical challenges. There are certainly some financial challenges and some cultural challenges to implementing this kind of a change in the human spaceflight and the cargo area as well. So success is not guaranteed, just like success can’t be guaranteed for our more traditional programs, but I do think, given appropriate funding and progress on the part of our industry partners we can see hopefully by the end of this year, maybe early next year, cargo delivery to the International Space Station, and by the middle part of the decade, I’m hopeful that we can have at least one US commercial crew transportation system.
NTB: You mentioned technical obstacles. Can you take us through some of those?
McAlister: Again, there’s no real, specific technology that is needed for this commercial crew and cargo programs to be successful. We just need good sound engineering focusing on our traditional processes that have been demonstrated many times before. There is going to be technology development for sure, and all of our partners are developing new systems, and we hope to see a lot of rewards from that and maybe some spillover into some other spacecraft development efforts.
NTB: What are the cultural challenges?
McAlister: To date, every NASA human spaceflight initiative has been done on a cost-plus arrangement, where NASA owns the design, and we make every decision on the design aspects. We signed off on every piece of paper, and the requirements that we placed on industry to meet, were very detailed, and sometimes they numbered in the thousands.
In this case, we really want private industry to own and operate these systems. They will own the intellectual property, they will own the design, and they will make decisions on how to meet NASA’s requirements. What we want is still going to be NASA’s purview, and we hope to get a very good set of requirements out on the street for industry to review by the end of this year. We’re still going to establish what we want, but we’re no longer going to be saying how we want it done. We really want the innovation and new ideas to come from traditional and non-traditional aerospace companies; that represents a big change for NASA, and one that I think we successfully accomplished in the cargo area. We’re trying to leverage that experience and apply it in the commercial crew area as well.
NTB: How did your career path lead to your job as acting director?
McAlister: I joined NASA about 5 years ago. Administrator Mike Griffin hired me to advise him on commercial spaceflight initiatives. I believe that Mike’s vision was to enhance and grow that area, and he was the one who started the Commercial Cargo program. While I’ve been here at NASA for almost six years now, I’ve always been involved in analyzing and studying commercial initiatives that NASA could undertake, and I’ve reviewed those commercial cargo programs several times within that six years.
When the FY-11 budget came out, and Commercial Crew was in there, I transferred over to the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, and I’ve been advising the associate administrator Doug Cook ever since. I started out on a launch vehicle development program called the Advanced Launch System, working as an engineer for the Department of Defense. I really became grounded in the technology and the systems required to do spacecraft development. Then, I worked on the International Space Station for many years, understanding that program and its culture and requirements, and that is very much part of the commercial cargo and crew programs, because the NASA customer is the International Space Station.
In the latter part of my career, really focusing on the commercial space industry, I was a consultant to companies such as Intelsat and Space Systems/Loral (SS/L), helping them define their markets, work their business plans, and come up with financing. If you put those three experiences together—spacecraft development, International Space Station, and commercial space—I kind of have a tailor-made background for this commercial crew and cargo initiative.
NTB: What is the most satisfying part of your current role?
McAlister: I think the most satisfying part of me is that we’re working on the next-generation system that‘s going to end the gap for human access to space. When the space shuttle comes to a real stop, it’s going to be a very sobering and somber experience for all of us. Yet we can look to the future for commercial cargo and say the next US-flag vehicle is going to come from this program, given appropriate funding and technical progress. And that makes me real excited for the future.
I am sad about the shuttle program coming to an end. It’s been an amazing program, but at the same time, we do need to move on, and I think there are some real innovation and exciting aspects to Commercial Crew that we’re going to experience very soon. Just in this next year, our CCDev partners have some very exciting milestones, tests, and demonstrations that are on the books, and I think after that, over the next years, we’re going to see a lot of activity because we’re going to have multiple partners working different systems, trying to solve these problems in different, innovative ways. At the same time, NASA is going to be working on our beyond-lower-orbit exploration system, a multipurpose crew vehicle, and the space launch system. Those are much more difficult initiatives, they have much more stringent requirements, and more challenging environments that they need to operate on.
To download this interview as a podcast, click here .