An artist's concept of the proposed Bigelow Olympus habitat. Image source: Bloomberg Businessweek.
A November 27 article on the Space News web site demonstrates yet again why the biggest obstacle to humanity in space is Congress.
Titled “U.S. Intellectual Property Rules Hinder Space Station Research,” Debra Werner writes that the 2010 Space Act passed by Congress included language that hinders the ability of CASIS to attract commercial research to the International Space Station.
At the root of the problem is legislation that designated part of the space station a U.S. National Laboratory. In the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, the U.S. Congress directed the space agency to create a cooperative agreement with a nonprofit organization to manage the space station’s National Laboratory. Cooperative agreements established by federal agencies include standard, U.S. government-wide terms and conditions, including requirements for intellectual property rights, said Courtney Graham, NASA associate general council for commercial and intellectual property law. “If you look at any of the cooperative agreements from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate or any other part of NASA, you’ll see the same type of terms and conditions,” Graham said.
In addition, since NASA is a title-taking agency, any large contractor that wants to retain title to an invention developed through the use of a NASA facility has to submit a waiver. If not, the space agency automatically acquires a license for government use of the invention.
Organizations routinely submit requests for NASA to waive that title-taking authority. NASA reviews the waiver and “pretty much always says, ‘Sure you can have rights to your invention,’” Graham said. That process is required by all NASA cooperative agreements. It is in all NASA contracts and funded Space Act Agreements as well, Graham said.
According to the article, NASA and CASIS have requested legislation that would “give the NASA administrator authority to waive the license to any inventions made during scientific utilization of the national laboratory that is unrelated to NASA work if reservation of the license 'would substantially inhibit the commercialization of an invention.'”
The language is in the Senate's version of the 2013 NASA authorization bill, but as with pretty much everything else in Congress these days it too is stalled and unlikely to pass this year.
On November 26, I wrote a blog article titled “What is NewSpace?” which attempted to delineate the differences between OldSpace and NewSpace. Some online pundits have claimed there is no difference.
Well, here's a big one.
Bigelow Aerospace, which plans to launch inflatable habitats into low Earth orbit in 2017, would offer laboratories that are not regulated by Congressional intellectual property right laws. If you do research on a Bigelow habitat ... it's yours.
Click the arrow to watch a January 2013 interview with Robert Bigelow. You may be subjected to an ad first. Video source: Bloomberg Businessweek.
When operational circa 2017, customers will fly to the Bigelow habitats on the same commercial crew vehicles that could transport NASA astronauts to the ISS — the SpaceX Dragon or the Boeing CST-100. The Dragon currently delivers cargo to the ISS, so presumably it could deliver to Bigelow as well.
Bigelow's expandable systems are based on a 1990s NASA technology called TransHab, which was foreseen as an inflatable module that could be used as ISS crew quarters, and possibly one day for Moon or Mars missions. The 2000 Space Act ended TransHab, reportedly to force NASA to focus on completing ISS construction with existing technology. At that point, the ISS was many years behind its originally envisioned completion date.
The 2000 legislation carved out an exception for “leasing or otherwise using a commercially provided inflatable habitation module.”
That opened the door for Bob Bigelow.
Congress ... was already moving to cancel funding for the program when Bigelow called to arrange a visit to the TransHab team at Johnson Space Center. NASA administrator Daniel Goldin suggested rescuing the technology by offering it for development to a consortium of aerospace companies, including Mitsubishi, plus Bigelow, who attended meetings as an independent investor. “I had no employees at that time. I was just there as me,” he says. When the corporations proved reluctant to put their own money into the program, the deal collapsed. But Bigelow was less interested in being a cost-plus contractor of the old school than in owning a technology he believed represented the future of space travel. So he decided to pursue the expandable habitat technology alone, with or without NASA’s permission. He went back to Nevada and, in April 1999, quietly formed a new company: Bigelow Aerospace. Then he bought 50 acres of land in an industrial park in North Las Vegas, and set a handful of engineers to work on figuring out how to build an inflatable house that could fly in space.
But in 2002, NASA finally canceled the TransHab project, and Bigelow applied to license the technology, in exchange for an initial $400,000 fee and a commitment for a far more significant sum — what he now says was “tens of millions” of dollars — into a development program. Under the terms of the agreement, Bigelow was able to bring many members of the original TransHab team to Las Vegas, including William Schneider, the veteran engineer, by that time already retired from NASA to teach, who had overseen the agency’s project from the start.
Bob Bigelow's investment is the key to opening space to the private sector.
Yes, it's worthless without the vehicles to transport people. But those are coming. They would be here sooner, except Congress cut the commercial crew funding 62% over the last three years from the Obama administration's funding request. This pushed back commercial crew's projected operational date from 2015 to 2017.
The House of Representatives hopes to cut this year's Obama administration request by 40%, extending U.S. reliance on Russia for ISS transportation to at least 2018.
Despite Congressional ineptitude, sooner or later a private crew vehicle will deliver customers to a private habitat in Earth orbit.
When that happens, Congress is no longer relevant to human spaceflight.