SpaceX has already successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket, which was developed with commercial customers in mind, and also wants to use that vehicle to loft astronauts into space. The company has signed launch contracts for missions during the next few years with a number of satellite companies, including Orbcomm, MDA, SES, Thaicom, Astrium and Iridium Communications.
“By [introducing] competition for human spaceflight, NASA is really forcing companies to be innovative,” says SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Grantham. “Competition forces every company to provide the best possible options for the government and the taxpayer at the best possible price.”
NASA’s decision to spur development of the commercial launch business stands to benefit taxpayers, adds Grantham. “If NASA is the only customer, it has to cover all the costs,” she adds. “But if NASA is [buying services along] with a multitude of companies, the costs are shared by everybody.”
Another key benefit for NASA of turning to commercial companies to provide transportation to and from LEO is that it will be able to tap directly into the private sector’s natural drive to maximize returns by lowering costs, says Paul Graziani, CEO of Analytical Graphics (AGI), which provides visualization software for space missions.
Graziani says, “Commercial companies look for efficiency because they’re driving for a profit,” which is defined as what the market will pay for a product or service minus the cost of its provision.
On the other hand, NASA also is taking advantage of the desire from well-heeled private investors to participate in the space industry regardless of whether their efforts will pay off financially, says Claude Rousseau, a senior analyst at Northern Sky Research.
Wealthy individuals who are funding space-related businesses include Internet entrepreneurs Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos, who started Blue Origin.
“NASA no longer has the wherewithal to do everything,” Rousseau says, adding, “I don’t think Wall Street [would have invested in launcher startups], especially after the bubble burst on the Internet.”
NASA is turning to the private sector to develop capabilities in areas other than access to low Earth orbit. An example is the space agency’s Flight Opportunities Program, which aims to develop suborbital launch vehicles for use by NASA and other customers.
“Where we see commercial opportunities, we definitely want to drive any way we can to make sure we get advanced space technology and foster the commercial space industry,” says L.K. Kubendran, program executive for the initiative. The program is housed under NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist and managed by the agency’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif.
According to Guennadi Kroupnik, director of satellite communications space environment projects for the Canadian Space Agency, another objective for NASA and space agencies worldwide should be to increase enthusiasm among ordinary citizens for investment in the development and exploration of space.
“This is not only about astronauts flying to space and exciting us all about space exploration. We have to find a better way to demonstrate to taxpayers and decision-makers the vast presence of space-enabled technologies in our routine day-to-day existence,” Kroupnik says. “The question [of whether] we need to continue spending on space is legitimate. We should ask and come up with the right responses to demonstrate the real value of space.”