Feature

Leaders Assess Future of US Space Travel
09.03.10
 
For the first time in nearly 50 years of American human spaceflight, Kennedy Space Center could be at the forefront of designing, developing, demonstrating and flying human-rated vehicles.

"We're looking to create a robust commercial space program with multiple customers, multiple providers and multiple systems that take Americans to the International Space Station and other low Earth orbit destinations," said Ed Mango, director of the Space Transportation Planning Office.

In May, the office sent out a Commercial Crew Initiative Request for Information (RFI). Mango, along with the office's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) Planning Lead Phil McAlister, Deputy Program Planning Manager Brent Jett and Insight Manager Scott Thurston, recently participated in a forum at NASA Headquarters to talk about common themes captured from dozens of industry responses. ESMD Deputy Administrator Dr. Laurie Leshin, Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program Manager Alan Lindenmoyer and the Space Transportation Office's Deputy Director Maria Collura also were on hand to offer insight.

"We have about 50 team members from shuttle, space station, Constellation, the Launch Services Program, the astronaut office, other NASA centers and contractors all coming together and melding our ideas of what commercial crew should be," Mango said. "And we're melding . . . it's like making gumbo and we just started making the roux."

If the Commercial Crew Program is approved by Congress and the White House, it would have several billion dollars within a five- year period to develop humanrating requirements, partner with commercial entities and complete design and development. The program also would include demonstration flights.

"We believe that we could fund up to four providers with that $5.8 billion," McAlister said. "We definitely want competition. That is a key aspect to our strategy. We need multiple providers that are coming forward with innovative solutions."

In addition to competition, will be collaboration. Thurston described more in depth about how NASA will take on a more "insight" role than its traditional "oversight" role and it's a change that the team doesn't take lightly.

"NASA has to re-examine what has been our traditional identity," said Leshin, "and think about our role in a new way as catalysts of a much broader and more inclusive activity."

Another aspect of collaboration would come from industries that are interested in performing science and research in low Earth orbit, whether on board the International Space Station or other future orbiting complexes.

Mango said because this would be the first Kennedy-led human spaceflight program, it could have quite an effect on the local economy.

"There is a door that is beginning to open to allow the Central Florida area to grow with dozens of companies, probably more engineering and technology firms, much like around other NASA centers," Mango said.

Currently, the office is working closely with the 21st Century Space Launch Complex Planning Office at Kennedy to determine what facilities and capabilities commercial providers are looking for. For example, Mango said they are looking at ways to improve Launch Complex 39 so it can be used for multiple launch vehicles.

"We're encouraging you all (industry) to go talk to the NASA centers, please provide them input, let them know of your needs, let them know the timing of your needs, and start negotiating pricing," Collura said.

Jett described some requirements NASA will be looking for commercial companies to meet, including health, medical and safety. Some of those, Mango said, include life support requirements for the astronauts to be able to breathe and redundancies for emergency situa-tions, such as a backup flight control system.

The office is looking to NASA's Launch Services Program and the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Office for guidance on how to move forward with commercial partnerships.

"We've learned so much over the last four years since we awarded our first COTS agreement," Lindenmoyer said. "We let the creativity, innovation, ingenuity and flexibility happen . . . and yet, we still have to maintain our standards of safety and reliability."

NASA also is embedding workers in the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, and vice versa so the two agencies can understand day-to-day operations and iron out future roles and responsibilities.

"We're working with the FAA to figure out how to take 50 years of how we've done business, which involves a lot of requirement iterations, and merge it into the FAA's more regulatory-type environment," Mango said. "So in a generation or two, the FAA should be licensing spacecraft like they do aircraft today."

So, what's the ultimate goal for commercial crew?

"In the future, NASA will buy tickets to low Earth orbit that way we can focus more on exploration," Mango said. "I believe there are companies in this country that can definitely do commercial crew . . . and do it well."

 
 
Rebecca Sprague
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center