Hall told Via Satellite that NASA has an important role to play in driving innovation and supporting basic research in the space industry and related sectors of the economy. “Sustained federal investments in NASA and other science agencies can further strengthen our nation’s high-tech industrial base and ensure America’s position as the world leader in innovation.”
Terry Hart, a former space shuttle astronaut, believes NASA’s direction reflects misguided priorities among America’s political leadership. Hart says he is impressed by the efforts of companies that are participating in NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which aims to spur the development of private launchers to transport crew and supplies to the International Space Station. But Hart believes ending the space shuttle program without an alternative space transportation system already in place was a shortsighted mistake for NASA.
“We’re at risk of a shortfall in infrastructure and capability. It’s a crying shame and an embarrassment,” says Hart, who flew on the shuttle Challenger in 1994 and went on to become president of Loral Skynet, a commercial satellite operator. “The system is broken and we don’t seem able to make decisions like we used to because there are so many competing interests.”
NASA’s decision under President Barack Obama to abandon its Constellation launcher program, and rely entirely on still-undeveloped private launchers to transport humans and cargo to LEO, has left the United States in an uncomfortable position, says Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Without the space shuttle, NASA is relying on Russia’s aging Soyuz spacecraft to ferry crew members to the International Space Station until a privately operated alternative is available.
“There’s nothing wrong with those things by themselves,” Pace says, referring to NASA’s decision to turn to commercial providers for services it sees as routine in order to focus on complex deep-space missions. “My objection is to not having government participation in there and relying heavily on the private sector for what I see as a strategic national priority.”
NASA also needs to do a better job defining its plans for missions beyond LEO, adds Pace, who was associate administrator for program analysis and evaluation at NASA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. This is particularly true because space missions beyond the immediate vicinity of Earth are likely to involve multiple countries due to their large scale and high cost, he said.
“There is uncertainty about where the United States is going other than sending funding to its own contractors to support operations in low Earth orbit, which is where we already are,” comments Pace. “We find ourselves a lot more isolated than we were a few short years ago...there has been somewhat of a vacuum of U.S. leadership.”
McAlister acknowledged that NASA’s decision to privatize launch services to LEO orbit will be challenging, but said the potential opportunities justify the risks. “It entails cultural change, a shift in responsibility, and a shift in the financial risks and rewards,” he says. “We will have more U.S. aerospace jobs, a stronger industrial base, a more robust International Space Station and a new market for private sector expansion. Ultimately, it will be the customers who will benefit the most. Both public and private users will have a new space transportation capability to leverage.”
Commercial satellite companies could benefit if NASA is successful in its quest to spawn the development of a commercial launch industry with human-rated vehicles, says Foust, who believes NASA’s unbending need for absolute reliability when sending astronauts aloft would mean launchers certified to transport astronauts to the International Space Station could also become reliable new options for launching satellites.
In addition to relying on the private sector to provide launch services, NASA might consider using private satellites for communications in place of spacecraft owned and operated by the space agency, says McAlister. NASA continues to operate its own Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) to handle communications between spacecraft, but is open to the possibility of expanding its use of commercial satellites in the future.
Companies developing launchers that NASA could use to reach LEO orbit include large aerospace firms that have long supplied services to the space agency. Orbital Sciences Corp., Alliant Techsystems, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Blue Origin are all working with NASA on various programs.