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For many years the entrepreneurial space industry–collectively called “NewSpace”–has criticized NASA as slow, bureaucratic, and difficult to deal with. NASA, in turn, has devoted the bulk of its spending to major aerospace companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, not the entrepreneurs. However, as NASA and the White House redirect U.S. space exploration efforts, NewSpace companies are finding fresh opportunities to work with NASA.

A case in point is NASA’s new emphasis on technology development. At a workshop last week in Galveston, TX, NASA officials outlined their “point of departure” plans for developing enabling technologies for human space exploration beyond Earth orbit. Key technologies of interest include automated landers for robotic missions to the surface of the moon, Mars, and asteroids, and inflatable modules that can be attached to the International Space Station (ISS).

Seeing an opportunity, Masten Space Systems and XCOR Aerospace, two NewSpace companies based in Mojave, CA, announced plans to partner in a bid to work on proposed lander projects. Masten, which won over $1 million from NASA last year in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, will develop the vehicles under the partnership, while XCOR will provide engines powered by methane and liquid oxygen–the company has worked in the past with NASA to develop such engines.

“What triggered this,” said XCOR president Jeff Greason at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Chicago on Friday, “is that we received strong indications from a strategic customer that signaled to us that they would welcome the pairing of Masten’s vehicle technology with our engine technology–that if we put those two competencies together, it would scratch an itch that they really had no way to scratch right now.” The two companies, virtually next-door neighbors, already know each other well.

The work will be done in addition to, and not in place of, existing commercial work by both companies. XCOR is developing Lynx, a suborbital space plane that Greason anticipates will begin prototype flight tests in mid-2011. Masten, meanwhile, is developing suborbital vehicles using its own engine technology. By next year, said company founder Dave Masten in a separate ISDC presentation, the company will be developing Xogdor, a vehicle capable of carrying payloads (but not people) to altitudes greater than 100 kilometers.

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Credit: Mike Massee, XCOR

Tagged: Business, NASA, SpaceX, commercial space, NASA budget, Bigelow Aerospace, Masten Space Systems

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