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Xeus
An illustration of Xeus, a lunar lander based on a Centaur upper stage under study by Masten Space Systems. The company is one of three to receive an unfunded Space Act Agreement from NASA to support studies of the concept. (credit: Masten Space Systems)

The future of NASA’s commercial partnerships


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NASA’s use of public-private partnerships to develop new space capabilities got another, incremental endorsement on Sunday, when SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft departed from the International Space Station (ISS) and splashed down successfully in the Pacific Ocean off the Baja California coast. Dragon launched last month on the third of twelve contracted cargo resupply missions to the ISS, ferrying experiments and supplies from the station; it returned with some of the results of those experiments, as well as other cargo.

“This is not for a specific NASA need, but rather capacity that NASA had that we felt could be of value of industry in assisting them accelerate their capabilities for their needs,” Crusan said of Lunar CATALYST.

Dragon and the Falcon 9 rocket that launched it last month are products of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which used funded Space Act Agreements to support the development of those vehicles by SpaceX. COTS also supported the development of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft, which are scheduled to fly the second of eight cargo resupply missions to the station next month.

The success of COTS has demonstrated that, in the right circumstances, partnerships with the private sector produce systems less expensively and more flexibly than conventional contracts. That’s the model that NASA has also used for its commercial crew efforts, using a series of funded Space Act Agreements with several companies, most notably Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and SpaceX, to develop vehicles to transport astronauts to and from the ISS—and also be used by those companies for commercial applications, be it ferrying corporate researchers or space tourists.

However, the COTS program ended last year when Orbital completed its Antares/Cygnus test flight to the station. Commercial crew, meanwhile, is transitioning from Space Act Agreements to more conventional contracts in its next phase, called Commercial Crew Transportation Capability; NASA will award one or more contracts in August. So what is the next step for COTS-like partnerships?

While some in the space community would like NASA to use the COTS model for large scale projects, from establishing lunar transportation systems to development of a large kerosene/liquid oxygen rocket engine that could replace the RD-180, NASA’s ambitions—or at least its budgets—aren’t nearly as grand. Instead, NASA is pursuing a number of smaller programs, many of which offer no direct funding, to stimulate development of technologies and capabilities that could be of use to both NASA and commercial ventures.

One example of this is the Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (CATALYST) program. The program is designed to help companies develop spacecraft that can land cargo on the lunar surface. While NASA’s exploration plans don’t include missions to the lunar surface, the program’s website states that “the agency recognizes the U.S. industry’s interest in reaching and exploring the moon, and has competitively selected partners to spur commercial cargo transportation capabilities to the surface of the moon.”

On April 30, NASA selected three companies to receive unfunded Space Act Agreements to pursue those efforts. Two of the companies, Astrobotic and Moon Express, are already developing lunar landers as part of the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition. The third, Masten Space Systems, has previously proposed a lunar lander called Xeus that would use a modified Centaur upper stage. (Masten has also worked with Astrobotic to test Astrobotic’s landing system technology on Masten’s Xombie vehicle.)

Under Lunar CATALYST, none of the companies get direct funding from NASA, but access to the agency’s technical expertise and resources. “It’s an in-kind donation. It’s support they won’t have to pay for that will hopefully help them go down their path faster,” explained Dennis Stone of NASA’s Commercial Space Capabilities Office (formerly the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office, which ran COTS) in a talk at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Los Angeles on Sunday.

“This is not for a specific NASA need, but rather capacity that NASA had that we felt could be of value of industry in assisting them accelerate their capabilities for their needs,” said Jason Crusan, director of the Advanced Exploration Systems Division at NASA Headquarters, in a talk at the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) meeting in Washington on May 8. NASA is in the process of negotiating agreements with the three companies, which he said he expected to be completed by late May or early June.

CCSC seeks concepts from industry “to advance commercial space-related efforts by facilitating access to NASA’s vast spaceflight resources including technical expertise, assessments, lessons learned, and data.”

NASA had been previously developing lunar landing technology in house, with two separate efforts: Morpheus at the Johnson Space Center and Mighty Eagle at the Marshall Space Flight Center. That raised concerns in industry in the past that NASA might be competing with commercial ventures, an issue raised at the COMSTAC meeting earlier this month. Crusan said that NASA is no longer flying Mighty Eagle, while Morpheus is wrapping up a series of flight tests scheduled to end late this month. After that, he said, the Morpheus team will transition over to support Lunar CATALYST.

“We’re at a point in time now that we feel that industry has picked up enough that we can make a transition” from in-house technology development to industry partnership, he said. “We are using that workforce now to help accelerate commercial industry and their landing capabilities.”

Luna CATALYST is just one of several ongoing partnership efforts. Another is the Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC), for which NASA released an announcement for proposals at the end of March, seeking concepts from industry “to advance commercial space-related efforts by facilitating access to NASA’s vast spaceflight resources including technical expertise, assessments, lessons learned, and data.” Executive summaries of proposals were due to NASA last month, which NASA then screened and then selected an unspecified number to submit a full proposal, due May 29.

Like Lunar CATALYST, CCSC will award unfunded Space Act Agreements to the selected companies, with those selections expected in July. In his ISDC talk, Stone said the exact number of awards will depend on the resources each proposal requires, and could range from a few awards requiring significant resources to many that need less. (NASA hasn’t specified the overall level of support it plans to provide to CCSC, only that “limited amount of Government resources [will be] available to provide the base support negotiated in the Agreements,” according to a procurement document.)

The proposals, Stone said, have to be aligned to agency goals in space exploration, and can include capabilities for transportation, operations, and habitation and other destination-specific needs. “We put this out as kind of an ‘a la carte menu,’” he said, allowing companies to identify “intersections between their business plans and what directions NASA is going.”

While neither Lunar CATALYST nor CCSC offers direct funding to companies, elements of NASA’s broad agency announcement (BAA) regarding elements of its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) do offer some financial support (see “After a year, NASA’s asteroid mission still seeks definition”, The Space Review, March 31, 2014). Stone noted that three of the five areas of the BAA have direct commercial relevance: adapting commercial spacecraft for use on the robotic redirection mission, studies of potential partnership opportunities for secondary payloads on that mission, and studies of partnership opportunities for the later crewed mission to the captured asteroid. NASA plans to award $2.2 million on contracts for those three areas, out of $6 million in the overall BAA.

NASA “is taking up the success of COTS and is looking at ways we can do more with partnerships,” Stone said. “We want, through these initiatives, to begin engaging the private sector in looking at ways to go hand-in-hand in exploration.”

The latest initiative, announced just last month, seeks to examine ways to enhance commercial use of the station. The “Evolving ISS into a LEO Commercial Market” request for information (RFI) seeks ideas from industry on “how NASA can enable greater private access, use, and applications of LEO utilizing ISS, including crew and cargo transportation, to help industry identify commercially viable activities that would be self-sustaining.”

The accompanying press release identified topics that responses to the RFI could address, from ways to break down barriers to commercial use of the station to even “create a private system in low-Earth orbit,” a concept that neither the press release nor the RFI defines. Responses to the RFI are due June 30, after which NASA will evaluate them to see which, if any, concepts they would like to pursue further.

“This will not lead directly to partnership opportunities, but it is taking a step in that direction,” Stone said of the RFI in his ISDC talk. “This is very broad, very visionary. We’re trying to open a very wide gate to bring some interesting ideas in.”

None of these programs, individual or combined, are a replacement for COTS, but they are signs that NASA is still interested in finding ways to partner with the private sector outside of conventional contracts to meet the needs of both the agency and industry. NASA “is taking up the success of COTS and is looking at ways we can do more with partnerships,” Stone said. “We want, through these initiatives, to begin engaging the private sector in looking at ways to go hand-in-hand in exploration.”


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