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LC-39A ceremony
NASA administrator Charles Bolden, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, and Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana pose in front of Launch Complex 39A during an April 14 press event announcing SpaceX’s lease of the launch pad. (credit: NASA/KSC)

The growth of public-private partnerships in commercial space ventures

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On March 25, NASA announced its Collaboration for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC) initiative. In making this announcement, William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations said, “The growing US commercial spaceflight industry is opening low Earth orbit in ways that will improve lives on Earth, drive economic growth, and power 21st Century innovations. As NASA again pioneers a path into deep space, we look forward to sharing our 50 years of spaceflight experience and fostering partnerships in ways that benefit our nation’s ambitious spaceflight goals.”

This public-private commercial push by NASA has been underway since the establishment of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program in 2006.

Gerstenmaier is putting the best face is a less than ideal situation. The debate in Congress to restore Administration-requested funding levels to NASA’s Commercial Crew program is indicative of the fiscal problems the agency is facing now and will continue to face in the years ahead. NASA is looking for practical ways in partnering with private commercial businesses in a concerted effort to achieve its desired goals.

This public-private commercial push by NASA has been underway since the establishment of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program in 2006. This program, and its subsequent initiatives, has now led to commercial resupply of essential cargo, research experiments, and other payloads delivered to the ISS by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. Commercial Crew grew out of that initiative as well, and this will eventually lead to the United States finally returning to human spaceflight in getting astronauts to the orbiting space station from American soil.

However, unlike COTS and the subsequent initiatives, CCSC will not provide financial awards to participating commercial partners. This initiative will make use of unfunded Space Act Agreements (SAAs), where there is no monetary incentive to those firms choosing to participate. NASA’s Lunar CATALYST, which I briefly described here two months ago (see “Why not return to the Moon? (part 2)”, The Space Review, February 10, 2014) is another such unfunded initiative: the goal is to have private firms partner with NASA and, specifically, its various centers to design and develop landers for commercial lunar ventures.

On March 31, NASA issued its formal announcement of Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities (No. NASA-CCSC-01). The stated objective of the CCSC initiative is a surprising model of government agency clarity:

“The objective of the Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC) Agreements is to advance private sector development of integrated space capabilities so that the emerging products or services are commercially available to government and non-government customers within approximately the next five years.”

To put it in pragmatic terms, NASA wants to make available its facilities, its personnel’s technical expertise (as time permits), the experience achieved from over half a century of spaceflight, and offer a vast storehouse of “lessons learned” to private firms in exchange for the entrepreneurial creativity and money to develop new ways of accessing and profiting from space that can also help NASA achieve its human spaceflight missions beyond low-Earth orbit.

Private firms choosing to participate in CCSC must deliver their Proposal Executive Summaries by today. NASA will evaluate these brief documents and select the ones it chooses to receive a full proposal. The winning proposals will result in a signed SAA between NASA and the winning firms.

Two examples of the NASA-commercial partner hybrid

These initiatives are just a part of the increased effort by NASA to lure commercial partners in the post-shuttle era. The agency is also looking to make available facilities at its various centers around the United States, particularly at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

NASA offers a vast storehouse of “lessons learned” to private firms in exchange for the entrepreneurial creativity to develop new ways of accessing and profiting from space.

NASA has been reconfiguring the launch complex in preparation of the Space Launch System era, but the anticipated frequency—or infrequency—of launches will leave much of the launch complex inactive for many months at a time. It is for this and other reasons NASA has chosen to provide space within the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and other facilities for potential future commercial customers, their launch vehicles and their spacecraft.

KSC’s Ground Systems Development and Operations (GDSO) program is, according to a NASA document, “…preparing infrastructure to support several different kinds of spacecraft and rockets that are in development. Products and systems devised at Kennedy could be used at other launch sites as well.” For example, the Air Force’s X-37B will now use KSC as a base of operations.

The three primary operational aspects at KSC will focus on horizontal launch and landing capabilities, vertical launch capabilities, and spacecraft processing capabilities. The horizontal launch and landing capabilities are specifically directed primarily to commercial possibilities. Significantly, the GSDO monthly newsletter cover depicts proposed Stratolaunch Systems spacecraft and facilities near the former shuttle landing strip.

However, the current focus of Stratolauch Systems, headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama, is actually in Mojave, California, where the company has an 8,200-square-meter fabrication facility and a massive hangar of more than 9,560 square meters to assemble and test the carrier aircraft. The use of KSC makes sense to the company, though, for the processing of the Orbital Sciences multi-stage booster and its payload prior to mating to the carrier aircraft and later takeoff from the shuttle landing strip.

The most active privately-held commercial company operating to low Earth orbit—read the International Space Station—is SpaceX. May will mark the second anniversary of the first docking of the Dragon capsule with the ISS. On Friday, April 18, a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 sucecssfully launched the third in a series of twelve Dragon cargo missions to the station, carrying a payload of nearly 2,100 kilograms of supplies and materials to support more than 150 science investigations; that Dragon berthed with the station on Sunday. SpaceX is still in the operational development phase of its reusable version 1.1 booster as part of its plan to further reduce the cost of commercial access to space.

SpaceX has impressive capabilities for its forthcoming Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. On April 14, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease with NASA for the operation and maintenance of Launch Complex 39A, or LC-39A, at KSC. LC-39A will be reconfigured to launch the Falcon Heavy. At a press announcement at the famed launch complex, Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX, said, “With nearly 50 missions on manifest, SpaceX will maximize the use of pad 39A to the benefit of both the commercial launch industry as well as the American taxpayer.”

“Kennedy Space Center is excited to welcome SpaceX to our growing list of partners,” Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana said. “As we continue to reconfigure and repurpose these tremendous facilities, it is gratifying to see our plan for a multi-user spaceport shared by government and commercial partners coming to fruition.”

Private commercial space ventures expand

On March 14, Space Florida signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Swiss Space Systems (S3). For many reading the news announcement here in Florida, it was the first time they had heard of the company. S3, headquartered in Payerne, Switzerland, southwest of Berne, is pursuing ambitious and multifaceted commercial space goals.

At the same time of the signing, S3 established a new subsidiary, S3 USA Operations, Inc. In October of last year, the company signed a similar MOU with Spaceport Colorado. The company plans us use the facilities at KSC and Spaceport Colorado as two primary locations for its commercial suborbital business in the United States.

The emergence of air-launched human spaceflight and commercial satellite payloads represent new segments of the commercial market.

S3 is pursuing a multi-pronged approach to its commercial space vision. Best known is the company’s plans to design and develop a shuttle-like vehicle launched from the back of an Airbus A300 at an altitude of 10,000 meters. The powered spacecraft is being derived from the former European Hermes spacecraft program and X-38.

Once launched, the spacecraft will fire its engine to take it to an altitude of 80 kilometers. The cargo bay will open, the payload launcher will be elevated, and a conventional upper stage will ignite to take the payload to orbit. The Airbus and spacecraft will then return to their landing site.

Beyond launching small satellites, the company would also like to configure the shuttle to carry passengers in an effort to compete with Virgin Galactic in the space tourism market. S3 has a dozen partners including Dassault, ThalesAlenia Space, and ESA. It should surprise no one that Breitling watches is a principal sponsor.

In February, Richard Branson spoke at the United Arab Emirates Government Summit on his plans and progress for Virgin Galactic. The company plans eventually to build a spaceport in the UAE, where there will be no shortage of eager and wealthy passengers to ride aboard the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle and have bragging rights to say they are now astronauts.

Things are taking longer than expected for Virgin Galactic here in the United States. CEO George Whitesides told Aviation Week & Space Technology last August, “It’s sort of like we’ve been working on this for so long in the space community that it always seems like it’s in the future. But we’re really almost there, where people will be able to buy a ticket and go down to Spaceport America, get their week of training, and… have your ‘Right Stuff’ moment.” Each passenger will pay $250,000 to experience that “moment.”

At the UAE summit, Branson expressed his optimism and concern for the timing of the first launch of SpaceShipTwo with its first group of passengers. He said: “If myself and my family are not in space by the end of the year, I would be very, very worried.”

Branson also has other plans for the carrier craft, WhiteKnightTwo. The company is entering the small commercial satellite payload market by developing the LauncherOne rocket. WhiteKnightTwo will carry LauncherOne to 15,000 meters and then release it. Using rocket engines developed in-house at Virgin Galactic, LauncherOne will be capable of placing satellite payloads of up to 225 kilograms into orbit. Branson argues that small satellites today are much more powerful and capable, and the lower cost of this launch service will make it appealing to not only small companies, but even universities and other organizations. The first commercial satellite launches using LauncherOne are scheduled to begin in 2016.

The mandatory public partner in commercial space

Overseeing all commercial launch activity in the United States is the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or FAA/AST. It licenses and regulates all United States commercial space launch and reentry activity. However, the agency has not yet drafted safety regulations with respect to commercial human spaceflight. It is the proverbial “chicken or the egg” situation where FAA/AST must see how this nascent business of going to operate as well as how the aircraft and spacecraft are certified for flight.

The Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), an industry group that provides advice to the FAA, does not want to stunt the early years of corporate operation in this new and exciting arena. It wants an operational learning period in order to establish regulations based on real-world flight experience. There are many unanswered questions at this stage.

The annual commercial launch forecast published by FAA/AST predicts eight payload launches per year (nine in 2019) for Commercial Cargo and Crew Transportation to the ISS from 2015 through 2022. Commercial telecommunications launches will peak next year at 17 launches and decline somewhat through 2022 to ten launches. There are also commercial remote sensing and other commercially launched satellites projected over the next eight years totaling over 150 launches in the United States.

The emergence of air-launched human spaceflight and commercial satellite payloads represent new segments of the commercial market. New traditional vertically-launched vehicles are now and will soon come on the scene to join the reliable standbys Delta and Atlas. Our vocabulary of mythical and astrological names will expand to include Antares, Minotaur, Pegasus, Taurus, and other names as the commercial markets expand and adapt in a new era of spaceflight.