Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Right Side of History

Florida Today published this morning my guest column about NASA now being on the right course with its NewSpace partnerships.

Click here to read the column as published.

Below is the column as originally submitted, basically the same.


THE RIGHT SIDE OF NASA HISTORY
By Stephen C. Smith

What do Ronald Reagan, the two Presidents Bush and Barack Obama have in common?

They all directed NASA to commercialize access to space.

On December 13, 2013, NASA announced the agency had selected SpaceX to negotiate a lease for Kennedy Space Center’s historic launch pad 39A.

The decision fulfilled a thirty-year vision to end a government space monopoly replete with taxpayer-funded delays, overruns and inefficiences.

In 1984, the National Aeronautics and Space Act was amended to open space for the first time to the private sector:

The Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration … seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.

Another amendment in 1991 required the NASA Administrator to “encourage and provide for Federal Government use of commercially provided space services and hardware.”

After the Columbia accident, President George W. Bush announced on January 14, 2004 that the Space Shuttle would fly again only to complete the International Space Station, and then retire. He appointed a commission to recommend how to implement his Vision for Space Exploration, which featured a new government space vehicle program called Constellation.

The commission’s June 2004 report included a chapter titled, “Building a Robust Space Industry.” The report called for “the breaking down of barriers to commercial and entrepreneurial activities in space, as well as a cultural shift towards encouraging and incentivizing more private sector business in space.”

In November 2005, NASA opened its Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office. Administrator Michael Griffin approached entrepreneurs Elon Musk, Burt Rutan, Robert Bigelow and others, asking them to invest in what some today call “NewSpace.” Musk’s SpaceX signed its first NASA commercial cargo contract in 2006, and Orbital Sciences in 2008.

The government Constellation program, meanwhile, fell years behind schedule and went billions over budget as had the Shuttle and ISS before it.

In 2009, an independent commission appointed by President Obama found that Constellation was not sustainable. The administration recommended in 2010 that Constellation be cancelled, and proposed funding a crew version of the commercial cargo program.

As 2013 ends, SpaceX and Orbital deliver cargo affordably to the ISS, flying robotic ships that don’t risk lives to pilot them. Three commercial companies are developing 21st Century spacecraft capable of delivering seven astronauts to the ISS or private space stations, such as the Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitats now under construction.

Treatments developed in microgravity for Hepatitis-C and osteoporosis are now on the market. Here in Florida, the Jacksonville Mayo Clinic announced December 18 it will send human cells to the ISS to research a potential treatment for stroke patients. A Boca Raton company, Zero Gravity Solutions, is developing plant nutrition products derived from ISS research.

The Gold Rush is on. The gold is microgravity.

NewSpace now has ventures beyond NASA, such as suborbital adventure tourism and asteroid mining. A commercial lunar company, Golden Spike, is led by former NASA executives. Apollo-era astronaut Jim Lovell recently joined their Board of Advisors.

NewSpace works best when NASA acts as an advisor or partner, freeing the private sector to innovate. Within a decade, we may see a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launch a commercial lunar mission from pad 39A — long before Constellation’s lunar timeline.

NASA is finally on the right side of history.

Stephen C. Smith is a member of the Florida Space Development Council chapter of the National Space Society, and The Planetary Society. He is the author of the SpaceKSC.com blog.

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