Private Space Technology Powers Up

Former astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz says the private sector can help NASA, and reckons he has the rocket to prove it.

In the coming weeks the Obama administration will decide the future of U.S. human spaceflight. A summary report by the committee tasked with reviewing NASA’s current plans and providing recommendations suggests utilizing the commercial sector for unmanned, and perhaps manned, missions as a way to reduce government costs. Franklin Chang Diaz, a former NASA astronaut and founder and president of Ad Astra Rocket Company, agrees.

Rocket science: Franklin Chang Diaz (top) is a former NASA astronaut and founder of Ad Astra Rocket Company. The company has developed a prototype plasma rocket, the VX-200 (bottom), that recently achieved 201 kilowatts of power.

Diaz spoke at the Space Investment Summit in Boston last week. His company–spun off from his work at NASA–is developing a propulsion system called the variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket (VASIMR) to replace traditional chemical systems, which are less suitable for deep space missions to Mars and beyond (read a previous interview with Diaz, in which he explains the technology.) Last week, a prototype VASIMR engine, the VX-200, achieved a significant target: 200 kilowatts of power, the amount necessary for the company to start developing its flight version, which is expected to be ready in 2013.

Technology Review spoke with Diaz at the summit.

Technology Review: In your talk today, you said that “NASA is a victim of its own success,” and that now is the right time for the private sector. Could you expand on this?

Franklin Chang Diaz: The agency really transformed the world in space with the achievements of the moon landings, but the whole world changed, and NASA didn’t change. NASA remained in the glory days of the past, and 40 years have gone by, and NASA is still the same NASA as the 1960s. And I don’t mean it in a bad way. It was so wonderful what was done, and people were completely fascinated by it. But a new opportunity has been created because NASA’s fascination with its own past in the present has created a gap, a hole, which is perfect for the private sector to move into.

The private sector is going to fill the void in rapid access to low earth orbit, allowing NASA to be NASA, to do what NASA was really meant to do, which is look forward to the frontier. Let the private enterprise build the base camp now that we know how to do it, and NASA can go conquer the summit.

TR: There are a lot of companies building technology for access to low earth orbit, but some still have years of development work and need funding. Can the private sector realistically get it done soon?

FCD: Absolutely. Rockets are not a new invention. Reliable rockets were built in World War II, and they were perfected by NASA in the 50s and 60s, and other countries as well. Also, the technology for rocket propulsion is not rocket science anymore. However, we do need advanced propulsion, which is a completely untapped area of research; very little work has been done, and we need to move into that realm because we are not going to get to Mars on chemical rockets. It is going to be too fragile and too dangerous [of a mission] for chemical rockets.

Plasma power: The VX-200 rocket being tested at Ad Astra Rocket Company’s facilities in Houston. The total power produced by the engine is distributed between its two electromagnetic stages; both are firing in the image.

TR: You are developing a propulsion system for deep space missions. What recent advances have you made, and what milestones have you reached?

FCD: We are getting ready to fly the VASIMR engine on the International Space Station (ISS). It is a 200-kilowatt plasma rocket, the most powerful rocket ever built to fly in space, and the prototype is being tested on the ground in our facilities in Houston. We have been gradually ramping up the power over many months, and our goal is to reach 200 kilowatts, which is the power level the rocket will run at on the ISS, and we achieved that today. We actually reached 201 kilowatts. It was a very exciting moment because it happened right when we were in the meeting, and I kept getting text messages.

TR: What is the next step in development of the engine?

FCD: The next step is to actually build the flight unit, which will be ready to launch October 2013. We will install it on the ISS and test it there. After the test is finished, we will use it commercially to reboost the space station [to a higher altitude] to provide the drag compensation. [Currently the ISS requires periodic boosts to get it to the right orbit for space shuttle or Progress dockings.]

TR: Do you have a vehicle for the system after the ISS work?

FCD: We are already in discussions with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, the two companies that already have access to the space station [through contracts with NASA], so we can develop the interface in either one of those vehicles. We will make a decision, selecting one of those two probably at the end of next year.

TR: There are arguments that the private sector needs government money to succeed. How are you handling funding?

FCD: It’s always a struggle to continue to get investment, but the way we do it is by meeting our milestones. The one we met [last week] will give us ammunition to seek more private investment. It would also be nice to have government funding. When we created the company, it was an experiment in NASA privatization, and the premise was that we would privatize the project and let the private sector mature the technology to the point where NASA would pick it up again, and that time has arrived. So we are always looking for a contract from NASA that would alleviate our need for private investment.

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