Friday, May 24, 2013

OldSpace in Check

Click the arrow to watch the KLAS Las Vegas TV report. You may be subjected to an ad first.

UPDATE May 26, 2013Click here to listen to the May 23, 2013 teleconference.

The future of human space flight has changed.

In a teleconference yesterday, NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier and Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow discussed the agreement that could one day turn over U.S. labs aboard the International Space Station to the private sector, and result in commercial colonies on the lunar surface.

KLAS-TV Las Vegas journalist George Knapp broke the story on April 10, writing that Bigelow Aerospace had signed with NASA an unfunded Space Act Agreement to research the interest among private companies to commercialize access to low Earth orbit and beyond.

Knapp wrote in April:

NASA has been coasting for a long time, kept alive by the now-distant memory of the moon landings and less spectacular but more important missions such as the Hubble and unmanned probes to Mars and beyond. Basically, NASA has become a job-protection racket, spending public dollars on programs and ideas that always seem to get cancelled. For instance, we spent tens of billions on the ISS but no longer have a way to get there.

The long-term answer has been well-known to NASA and the private space industry for a long time: Figure out how NASA can get out of the way and help private companies take the next step by commercializing space. Make it profitable for Americans to be up there, doing things that will ultimately benefit Earth. Few individuals in the aerospace world have been more critical of NASA than Bigelow, which makes the pending agreement all the more remarkable.

In a nutshell, NASA has decided that the best way to get Americans and American companies back into space is for the government to partner with private enterprise. To provide technical expertise and legal authority for bright, ambitious entrepreneurs to spend their own money on endeavors that will not only re-establish American supremacy in space but also get started on truly exciting long-range projects, including private space stations, as well as permanent bases on the moon, on Mars and beyond.

A signed copy of the agreement was posted online April 22 by The document had been signed in late March.

Click the arrow to watch on Florida Today a NASA animation of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module being attached to the ISS. You may be subjected to an ad first.

Florida Today reporter James Dean wrote in today's article about yesterday's teleconference:

As more companies invest in hardware and missions, “isn’t there an opportunity in there for NASA to benefit, so that NASA isn’t having to pay the perpetual heavy burden of research and development costs?” said Bigelow’s founder, Robert Bigelow.

Bigelow spoke to roughly 20 companies and international space agencies to produce the first of two reports promised to NASA under an unfunded Space Act Agreement signed in March ...

Its focus was on near-term opportunities in low Earth orbit, on the moon or at gravitationally stable points around the moon rather than on deeper-space missions that will take longer and cost more.

Bigelow said he solicited input under the understanding that Bigelow Aerospace would act as a general contractor, demanding services for fixed prices on strict timelines.

This idea is a stunning rebuke of how NASA has done business for the last half-century.

For decades, NASA contracts were steered to aerospace companies that funnelled millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of members of Congress. Those members often sat on the space authorization and appropriations subcommittees in both houses of Congress.

A glaring example is the Space Launch System. Called the “Senate Launch System” by its critics, SLS was dictated by Congress in 2010 to assure that Space Shuttle and Constellation contractors continued to receive NASA dollars. The law didn't allow NASA to put SLS out for bid or competition. NASA was required to use those contractors.

Three years later, Congress still hasn't told NASA what it's supposed to do with SLS. NASA is to build the rocket, keeping those workers employed and the contractors compensated. Once it's built ... who knows.

Last month, NASA tried to answer that question itself. On April 10, NASA submitted the asteroid initiative to Congress. The idea is to use new ion propulsion systems and robotic technology to divert an asteroid into a lunar parking orbit, while simultaneously certifying SLS for human space flight. In 2021, a crew of four would use SLS to rendezvous with the asteroid, to study mining and other operations around this difficult target.

Members of Congress have been largely derisive of the proposal. In a May 21 House space subcommittee hearing, most of the members made it clear they want to do Apollo again. One was Space Coast Rep. Bill Posey, who dismissed the asteroid initiative as “unexciting” for him.

(Note to Rep. Posey ... I find it exciting. So do a lot of voters I've spoken with. One told me yesterday, “That's very cool!”)

Click the arrow to watch the May 21 House space subcommittee hearing.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was a rare exception. He reminded his colleagues that there is no “tooth fairy” who will magically deliver the incredible sums of money necessary to fund an Apollo redux.

In current dollars, Apollo cost roughly $150 billion — and that wasn't in an era of trillion-dollar annual federal deficits.

Rohrabacher challenged his colleagues to explain how an Apollo sequel would be funded. None did.

The NASA-Bigelow agreement essentially proposes to take Congress out of the equation. The private sector would research, develop and fund the vehicles and technology to take NASA and other nations' astronauts into space, as well as commercial interests.

These visionary companies have been nicknamed “NewSpace” for their new and innovative thinking. The corollary is that the space-industrial complex should be labelled “OldSpace.”

Three years ago on April 15, Barack Obama flung down his presidential gauntlet, challenging OldSpace to change its porking ways. In a speech at Kennedy Space Center, Obama said:

But I also know that underlying these concerns is a deeper worry, one that precedes not only this plan but this administration. It stems from the sense that people in Washington — driven sometimes less by vision than by politics — have for years neglected NASA’s mission and undermined the work of the professionals who fulfill it. We’ve seen that in the NASA budget, which has risen and fallen with the political winds.

But we can also see it in other ways: in the reluctance of those who hold office to set clear, achievable objectives; to provide the resources to meet those objectives; and to justify not just these plans but the larger purpose of space exploration in the 21st century.

All that has to change.

OldSpace fought back, dictating the Space Launch System while battling to underfund — if not cancel — the commercial crew program.

The last three years have been a game of political chess between OldSpace and NewSpace, perhaps evocative of the 1972 world chess championship between Soviet champion Boris Spassky and his brash U.S. challenger, Bobby Fischer. Russian players dominated the chess world, while Fischer was a brilliant (if impudent) lone wolf driven to challenge the Soviet machine.

The odds seemed to have been against Fischer ... but in the end, he won.

Yesterday, NewSpace put OldSpace in check. Checkmate is still many years away.

Media reports:

Aviation Week “NASA, Bigelow, Assess Private Interest In Deep-Space Human Exploration”

Bloomberg News “Bigelow Aerospace to Study Moon Base in Deal With NASA”

The Daily Mail “Will Astronauts LIVE on the Moon by 2020?”

Florida Today “NASA, Bigelow Aerospace Partner for Human Space Exploration”

KLAS-TV Las Vegas “I-Team: NASA, NLV Aerospace Co. to Explore Space Together”

Las Vegas Sun “North Las Vegas Company to Test Spacecraft Capable of Moon Landing” “Bigelow to Test Habitat Prototype in Desert near Las Vegas” “Destination Moon: Private Spaceflight Companies Eye Lunar Bases”


  1. There does exist a difference between this game and chess. The side that wins will most likely absorb the other side's components. This will happen as whole companies that progress to the NewSpace behaviors, or as the survivors of NewSpace being coerced back into the old Federal Acquisition Regulations corporate/congressional culture. Individuals within these companies who cannot adapt to the environment that wins out will, of course, lose jobs and income.

    The most interesting thing to me will be to see how many times this game gets played, before freedom from congressional dictat wins.

  2. You raise some interesting points.

    Will the OldSpace companies be forced to evolve, or will NewSpace put them out of business and pick over the leftovers? Will there be mergers and acquisitions? For example, if Boeing threw a zillion dollars at Elon Musk, would he sell SpaceX?

    Re the chess analogy, games can also end in a draw or stalemate. But I think the eventual endgame is "freedom from congressional dictat" as you put it.