Click the arrow to watch the Commercial Space hearing on YouTube.
The House Space Subcommittee held a hearing today simply titled, “Commercial Space.” Its purpose seemed to be to promote a bill introduced by House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and co-sponsored by Space Coast Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL).
H.R. 3038, titled the Suborbital and Orbital Advancement and Regulatory Streamlining (SOARS) Act, was introduced in the house on August 2. According to the bill, its purpose is “To streamline the process of commercial space launch licensing and to establish demonstration projects involving the use of experimental aircraft in direct and indirect support of commercial space launch activities.” The bill was referred to this committee, and today was its first hearing.
If you're wondering why Reps. McCarthy and Posey are interested, it's the usual reason why members of Congress take an interest — it affects their district.
Rep. McCarthy's district includes the Mojave Air & Space Port. According to the port's web site, it is “currently home to more than 70 companies engaged in flight development to light industrial to highly advanced aerospace design, flight test and research and even heavy rail industrial manufacturing.” Among the many tenants are Virgin Galactic, XCOR, Stratolaunch Systems and Masten Space Systems.
XCOR, Stratolaunch and Masten all have plans for locating on the Space Coast. That's why Rep. Posey is interested.
Two other Republican members have cosponsored the legislation. Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-FL) represents Cecil Field in Jacksonville, licensed as a commercial spaceport and a potential future XCOR launch site. The final cosponsor is Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN).
One of the hearing's witnesses was Dennis Tito, multimillionaire entrepreneur who in 2001 became the first space tourist, paying $20 million to ride the Russian Soyuz to the International Space Station. Today Mr. Tito runs Inspiration Mars, which hopes to launch a civilian couple on a round-trip mission to Mars in 2018.
Space tourist Dennis Tito (left) in 2001 with Soyuz crewmates Talgat Musabayev (center) and Yuri Baturin.
Tito used the hearing to release his Architecture Study Report Summary, which proposes a combination of Space Launch System, its Orion crew capsule, an Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo module and potentially other commercial vehicles for a 501-day mission. To quote from the Inspiration Mars press release:
Inspiration Mars’ Architecture Study Report describes the proposed mission architecture to enable the voyage of 314 million miles in 501 days, which requires collaboration through a public-private partnership with NASA. The plan calls for two launches to keep crew and cargo separate, an inherent safety feature to the mission architecture. First, the SLS will lift off from Kennedy Space Center with a four-part payload to place cargo into Earth’s orbit, consisting of: an SLS upper-stage rocket to propel spacecraft from Earth’s orbit to Mars; a service module containing electrical power, propulsion and communication systems; a Cygnus-derived habitat module where the astronauts will live for 501 days; and an Earth Reentry Pod derived from Orion. The second launch will take the crew into orbit aboard a commercial transportation vehicle (selected from competing designs under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program). From there, the crew and Inspiration Mars vehicle stack will rendezvous in orbit using docking procedures perfected by more than 130 trips to the International Space Station.
As USA Today reported on September 22, anyone going to Mars would be exposed to “cancerous, or even lethal, levels of space radiation.” Mr. Tito's proposal released today remains silent on the radiation issue.
The plan has a lot of moving parts, and would require cooperation from NASA and a great deal of NASA hardware. The agency is building a jumbo rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), that is supposed to be ready for its inaugural, uncrewed test flight in 2017. Tito’s plan would essentially borrow the SLS for the Mars mission.
NASA officials did not immediately respond to Tito’s detailed proposal. In late October, in response to questions about possible collaboration Inspiration Mars and NASA, the agency released a cautiously worded statement, saying, “The agency will continue discussions with them to see how NASA might collaborate on mutually-beneficial activities that could complement NASA’s human spaceflight, space technology and Mars exploration plans. The agency has not made any commitments to Inspiration Mars related to launch vehicles.”