Ames Agency Alignment

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Ames Agency Alignment

About commercial space


Commercial enterprises, such as SpaceX, are enhancing and expanding the use of space. Credit: NASA
In the early 1990s an amendment was made to NASA's founding document, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, in response to the burgeoning field of commercial space. From this moment on, a key NASA function would be to seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space."

To fulfill this mission, NASA’s Emerging Space Office (ESO) provides analytical support to decision makers across NASA. The ESO monitors, investigates and reports on opportunities enabled by the rapidly growing national and international entrepreneurial space communities.

The ESO also examines competitive stresses, potentials for public benefit and issues affecting NASA or the nation in the commercial space arena.

Ames' role

Ames established the Space Portal, a branch of Technology Partnerships, to actively pursue transferring NASA technology to commercial companies and to infuse commercial technology into NASA missions. The Space Portal consists of award-winning senior space scientists, engineers and technologists, and works closely with NASA's Emerging Space Office to promote American competitiveness in space and address the needs of NASA and the nation.

The Ames Space Portal promotes space projects and education in science, technology, engineering and math to help develop the 21st century space workforce.

Featured example: Business Plan Competition

How can NASA encourage early-stage companies and promising entrepreneurs to develop space-focused business plans to use when applying for start-up funds?

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NewSpace 2012 was the site of the Space Frontier Foundation’s Business Plan Competition. Credit: Space Frontier Foundation Ames provided $110,000 in prize money for the Space Frontier Foundation’s 2012 Business Plan Competition. The competition was targeted at independent companies in the seed, start-up or early growth stages and simulated the real-world process of entrepreneurs soliciting start-up funds from investors and venture capital firms.

Competitors were required to demonstrate an ability to contribute to the economic development of space with groundbreaking technologies that were either space-focused or space-scalable. In addition to receiving critical feedback from space industry experts and investors, finalists participated in a “Boot Camp,” receiving expert training in promoting and developing their business plans.

Featured example: PICA-X Heat shield on SpaceX Dragon

How did Ames help the SpaceX Dragon capsule re-enter the atmosphere without burning up?

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NASA Ames’ arcjets were integral to the testing of the PICA thermal protection material. Credit: NASA Ames Decades of rigorous research, testing and development at NASA’s Ames Research Center has been leveraged by SpaceX to safely deliver its Dragon capsule back to Earth after its flights in space. This allowed SpaceX to become the first non-government organization in history to return an intact spacecraft from orbit. SpaceX incorporated the Ames-developed Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) thermal protection material into its heat shield design to make PICA-X, working with Dan Rasky, director of the Space Portal, who was one of the original developers of the material.

PICA is a heat shield material slightly more dense than balsa wood and is designed to protect spacecraft during the fiery entry into planetary atmospheres. As of November 2012, there have been three successful Dragon returns from space, with the latest ferrying important research payloads back to scientists on Earth.

Featured example: CRuSR/NASA Flight Opportunities Program

How is NASA opening up different avenues which enable researchers to fly their experiments in microgravity?

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In Aug 2012, NASA selected Near Space Corporation's (NSC) High Altitude Shuttle system (HASS) vehicle to be released from a high-altitude balloon and fly a parabolic flight profile. This will provide a microgravity environment to test several instruments. Credit: NSC The Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) Program was established in 2010 as an innovative teaming relationship between NASA and industry. CRuSR fostered the development of commercial suborbital flight providers. It sought to provide the nation with lower-cost, reliable access to minutes of microgravity and hard-to-reach regions of the upper atmosphere for a variety of research purposes.

Initial awards of almost $500K were made to two commercial companies for funding a series of low-altitude rocket flights. CRuSR has since merged with a program that made use of commercial parabolic flights for technology research. Together they formed NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program which allows for greater program alignment and provides the user community access to the microgravity environment via multiple platforms for a wider breadth of technology demonstrations and validations.