THE NEW AMERICAN SPACE AGEJune 01, 2015 | in News
I recently had a unique opportunity to tour the Virgin Galactic facility at the Mojave, CA Air and Spaceport. VirginGalactic, an AIA member, is actively moving forward with their plans to put anyone into space who buys a ticket – just as is done in every other field of transport. While this may seem only logical, consider that, until recently, just about the only people the US government sent into space were test pilots, scientists or technical mission specialists (ok, ok, a couple of politicians as well).
Virgin Galactic is not alone in seeking to provide new commercial services in space; other companies such as Masten Aerospace, XCOR and Stratolaunch also have facilities in Mojave and many other firms around the nation– some new and some long established – are also pursuing new commercial space concepts from nanosat earth observing systems and wi fi networks from low Earth orbit to commercial crew services for NASA and other customers.
Our national space exploration and research activities are increasingly benefiting from the dynamic commercial space industry as new commercial offerings and public/private partnerships augment and sometimes replace traditional government space capabilities. Today, the private sector is helping to create new space systems not previously possible, often providing relevant solutions to today’s challenges more quickly and at a lower cost than through traditional procurements.
For the military, faced with the twin challenges of ever more capable adversaries and draconian budgets, greater reliance on the private sector is increasingly essential. In a potentially contested space environment, it may be better to spread capabilities across hundreds of commercial platforms instead of a handful of potentially tempting targets. And for private sector ventures, DoD or other government agencies can be a valuable anchor tenant to help close a business plan.
For NASA, using the private sector for routine services is nothing new; in fact, the policy of using private sector launch service providers dates back to 1986 in the wake of the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Now, for International Space Station cargo, NASA benefits from the commercial sector developing two systems for ISS resupply – both because SpaceX’s Dragon is still launching after the loss of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket last October and because Orbital ATK was able to commercially contract with United Launch Alliance as a backup launch service providerfor its Cygnus cargo carrier.
A single government developed solution would not be nearly as robust in the event of a failure. And it should be noted that the NASA cargo business has helped U.S. companies such as SpaceX develop launch capabilities that are increasingly competitive in the international launch market – restoring the U.S. commercial launch service market share that had nearly vanished.
This same model is now being applied to launching crew – and the sooner this effort starts launching the better, since the former Soviet space systems used by the Russians seem to be increasingly prone to failures – and in their case, there are no commercial alternatives. Plus, every time we launch an astronaut to the ISS on the Russian Soyuz rocket, we have to pay $70 million for the ride.
While much attention and interest has focused on new entrants and some exciting new ideas using small satellites, this is not a simple story of new space versus old space. The Boeing company was recently awarded a patent for innovatively taking advantage of the substantial weight savings of its all-electric 702SP satellites. They can stack two of them without a carrier structure on a rocket that otherwise could carry only one conventional satellite at a time. To do this, Boeing – a company that is nearly 100 years old – worked with SpaceX, a company that has only been in operation for a dozen years.
SSL,a pioneeringcommercial satellite manufacturer whose first satellite was launched in 1960,last year was awarded a contract to produce 13 very innovative small LEO satellites for Skybox Imaging, one of the newest startups out of Silicon Valley. SSL’s high-volume production capability and experience is enabling Skybox to cost-effectively scale its fleet, while allowing it to focus on prototyping next-generation systems.
Innovation and commercial service success isn’t only limited to satellites and launchers -Digital Globe rapidly provides space imagery and geospatial content to customers ranging from U.S. federal agencies, including NASA and the DoD’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). Recently, in response to the devastating earthquake that struck central Nepal on April 25th, DigitalGlobe quickly made high-resolution satellite imagery of the affected areas freely available online to all groups involved in the response and recovery effort. Can you imagine how long it would take to provide imagery using a traditional procurement?
Lastly, commercial companies can apply their solutions to a wide range of customers – reducing costs and development time. Ball Aerospace’s BCP is a family of spacecraft designed for cost-effective, remote sensing applications. Built on a customizable, proven spacecraft design, the BCP accommodates a wide range of missions – from commercial systems supporting Digital Globe to cutting edge Earth science and meteorological applications.
So where is all of this leading? Some of these new initiatives, perhaps most if trends elsewhere are any indicator, will fail. But some will succeed and the world will be forever changed. Think of commercial communications satellites, GPS, and satellite radios; within a generation, we grew accustomed to watching the Olympics live from the other side of the world, never getting lost and always having a radio station tolisten to while driving. Some think of the 1960’s when they hear the term “Space Age”; I think we’re just getting started!