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Space Companies Get NASA’s Attention

Firms look to provide automated landers and inflatable modules.
June 2, 2010

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.

Static firing: XCOR Aerospace conducts static firing tests of the rocket engine that will power its Lynx suborbital spacecraft. The tests were conducted in the Mojave Desert.

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.

NASA’s interest in inflatable modules, meanwhile, has not escaped the notice of Bigelow Aerospace, a Las Vegas-based company that has successfully built and launched two prototypes and is currently working on larger modules. (In an ironic twist, Bigelow licensed the inflatable technology used in its modules from NASA, which had been developing a concept called TransHab that was canceled a decade ago.)

Mike Gold, director of Washington operations for Bigelow, said at ISDC that the company has been in discussions with NASA on a concept for the Bigelow Aerospace Module, a small inflatable module that could be attached to the ISS. Such a module, he said, would likely be comparable to the closet-sized Genesis prototypes the company previously launched. Gold has reservations, however, about NASA’s apparent desire for a “full-scale” inflatable module. “I’m not sure whether you could safely put a full-scale inflatable on the ISS,” said Gold, noting that adding even a small module to the station requires addressing issues such as structural fatigue and outgassing of module materials.

Bigelow also has an interest in an even bigger NASA initiative that involves some NewSpace companies: plans to spend $6 billion over the next five years to develop commercial systems that can transport astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. One company, SpaceX, is already developing the launch vehicle and spacecraft needed to carry that out; the rocket, the Falcon 9, is slated for its first launch from Cape Canaveral as early as this Friday. Such vehicles, besides meeting NASA’s needs for access to the ISS, could serve other customers such as Bigelow.

Some experts, however, doubt that NewSpace companies have the technical skill to safely carry out commercial crew missions. Skeptics include Scott Pace, a former NASA official who currently directs the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “Some think we’re ready to go towards human spaceflight on a commercial vehicle, and I’m not,” he said in a discussion about NASA’s new direction at ISDC.

Gold disagrees, arguing that commercial companies are ready to step up, and dismissing claims that commercial vehicles would be less safe than government-operated ones. “We care more about safety” than a government agency like NASA, said Gold, noting that a major accident could doom a commercial provider, but it wouldn’t necessarily ruin NASA. Safety concerns will undoubtedly be a central focus as NASA’s current plans go forward, and as the fates of NASA and NewSpace become increasingly intertwined.

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