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Dragon abort vehicle
A new commercial space law, and new pressure from NASA placed on the commercial sector, may provide the impetus needed for commercial human spaceflight not just to low Earth orbit but also beyond. (credit: SpaceX)

Spurring commercial human spaceflight to the Moon


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The American commercial space industry rejoiced last month when President Barack Obama signed into law the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA). By removing legal hurdles, this industry is encouraged to invest, take risks, and experiment with bold new ideas. The objective is to build a viable industry in low Earth orbit and beyond, ensuring American presence in areas that NASA will relegate to it as the agency concentrates on human mission to Mars.

As NASA gradually becomes preoccupied with attaining milestones required for human Mars missions, Bolden’s expectation is that the commercial industry will be prepared in time to operate independently in the gaps being created by the agency.

The CSLCA essentially combined four individual bills known in the House as Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act of 2015. It grants an extension through September 2023 of the “learning period” required by the commercial space industry to practice human spaceflight launches and build up experience without imposing burdensome regulations. It also extends until September 2025 the government’s indemnification of third party damages from commercial launches beyond a “maximum probable loss” amount the launch providers must ensure against.

The law is thus significant for providing the commercial space industry required time and financial incentives. Another benefit is the approval for extending life of the International Space Station (ISS) through 2024, assuring financial returns and operational experience for commercial human spaceflight companies like Boeing and SpaceX.

This law also confers on an US citizen the ability to own, transfer, and sell a mined abiotic space resource. However, it explicitly denies granting ownership of celestial bodies like asteroids to ensure the nation’s obligations towards international space treaties, which prohibit such claims in outer space.

For its part, NASA has built an extensive partnership with the commercial space industry for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The ARM aims to capture a boulder off an asteroid and transfer it to cislunar space, where it will be inspected and material extracted from it by astronauts. This will be the first time since Apollo that humans have conducted such in situ examination of chemical composition and extraction upon any celestial body. Besides validating critical technologies like the Space Launch System, the Orion crew capsule, electric propulsion, crew habitats, and a range of other critical technologies essential for human expedition to Mars, ARM lays groundwork for future mining expeditions by commercial companies.

Likewise, NASA is expecting the commercial space industry to extend its scope and reach beyond crew and cargo transportation to the ISS. With the Congress and White House clearing legal and administrative hurdles, NASA will “handhold” this industry to enable it reach and operate independently in low Earth orbit (LEO) and eventually on the Moon.

Bolden discussed these issues in a keynote address at the first Space Commerce Conference and Exposition (SpaceCom) last month in Houston, Texas. The timing is significant, and comes just as the CSLCA renamed the Office of Space Commercialization the Office of Space Commerce, signaling the success of a business process. Bolden also mentioned the selection earlier this year of four highly experienced NASA astronauts as the first crew to fly aboard commercial crew spacecraft.

Their participation will help the commercial industry advance the design and manufacture of crew spacecraft to NASA’s requirements and gain valuable experience in handling human launches. As that happens, Bolden challenged the commercial industry to adapt to flying non-NASA astronauts aboard their spacecraft for conducting operations in LEO. As NASA gradually becomes preoccupied with attaining milestones required for human Mars missions, Bolden’s expectation is that the commercial industry will be prepared in time to operate independently in the gaps being created by the agency.

The destinations for these commercial human spaceflight missions will gradually expand starting with the ISS, possible new space stations in LEO, cislunar space, and, eventually, the Moon. The ISS as a whole, or individual parts post-2024, will become valuable training platforms for non-NASA astronauts as well as deploying new space stations. The existence of such new stations can be assumed from Bolden’s optimism about “paying it back” for activity in LEO from NASA’s human spaceflight experience in the cislunar and Martian environments around 2030.

This vision will not only create a range of business opportunities but also addresses the criticism of NASA for not returning to the nearest celestial neighbor while other major spacefaring nations are advancing their lunar ambitions.

Given current engineering analyses of the station, the ISS would not be an ideal platform for human occupation around or beyond that 2030 timeframe. Moreover, the current state of geopolitics and diverging space ambitions of the ISS partners might deal the first blow to continuing this project, rather than natural causes. New space stations will not only help advance the development of new technologies for sustained human presence in outer space but also ensure continued American presence in LEO. And it would be the responsibility and business of the commercial space industry to construct such a station.

NASA has also created business opportunities in the cislunar space. It awarded contracts earlier this year to Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital ATK to study concepts for cislunar habitats as part of its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program. These habitats will be developed and tested to suit the requirements of astronauts on Mars.

Bolden does not want the commercial industry to limit itself there, but envisions it leading the nation back to the Moon itself, either independently or in collaboration with international partners. This vision will not only create a range of business opportunities but also addresses the criticism of NASA for not returning to the nearest celestial neighbor while other major spacefaring nations are advancing their lunar ambitions.

Bolden’s overall vision is to reenergize NASA and the US as the leader of human space exploration by charting a path to Mars. The promising commercial space industry will attend to any critical gaps emerging in this strategy.

This industry has consistently demonstrated its willingness to experiment with new ideas that offer solutions to age-old rocketry problems. By preparing to undertake human spaceflight missions, the commercial space industry is beginning to write a new chapter in space exploration. It not only creates more jobs in traditional and emerging space districts since the Space Shuttle program retired, but helps sustain the US foothold in outer space. It relieves NASA from conducting human spaceflight activities in the LEO and advances the work on human Mars program. The role of NASA, and the new CSLCA law, ensure the development and sustainment of such a vibrant but competitive commercial space industry.


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