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Watch This Space

Attempts by small space companies to win NASA contracts are as perennial as Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football.

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Gump values the ex-astronaut’s store of knowledge. He says that when Voss is in a meeting with NASA “and someone across the table says ‘I don’t think that’s going to work,’ Voss quietly replies, ‘Well, I’ve had some experience with that, and I believe it will.’ ”

Now Gump needed a player who could win at the Washington power game and provide access to decision makers. Having left the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, 34-year-old Brett Alexander was looking for a job in the private sector. One of the authors of the Vision for Space Exploration that President Bush announced in January 2004, Alexander remembers typing the words “retire the space shuttle fleet by 2010” and feeling the full weight of the words as he did so, having witnessed Columbia’s first launch in 1981 as an 11-year-old.

From then on he wanted to be in the space business. After getting a master’s in aerospace engineering and working at several space-related jobs, he landed a staff position in Bill Clinton’s White House science office, then survived the transition to a new Republican administration. After the Columbia disaster, Alexander stayed on to help write the new space policy before joining the private sector. With a wife and child and new house in Fairfax County, Virginia, he had his eye on a prime aerospace/military contractor or a satellite company like XM satellite radio. Then a friend, another policy consultant working with Gump, urged him to come to Reston to check out a new company with an unusual name, t/Space.

Alexander knew a bit about Gump and Hudson, who had been knocking around the edges of the space business for years. He looked at their Web site and listened to his friend’s pitch at t/Space’s small rented offices in Reston. His initial reaction was different from Voss’. These guys are crazy, he thought. Most commercial space companies had failed, and here was one more saying it could launch people into orbit in under four years, for less than half a billion. He told his wife about t/Space, then put them out of his mind.

But like Voss, Alexander didn’t want to end up working on a paper program for a huge contractor. His wife would ask him every few weeks about “that small company” which she said “sounds like your dream job.” In February 2005, Alexander joined t/Space as vice president for government relations.

It remains to be seen whether this assembled “supergroup” of talents—the astronaut, the marketing guy, the rocket designer, the policy expert, plus the celebrity (Rutan) in a supporting role—will be the ones to finally ignite the spaceflight revolution. They aren’t the first to promise low-cost launches, nor the first to assemble a team of aerospace veterans in hopes of winning NASA business. Another rocket startup, Kistler Aerospace (see “Rockets for the Rest of Us,” Feb./Mar. 1998), tried a similar strategy and even spent millions to buy proven Russian rocket engines, but ended up in Chapter 11.

Another contender is Elon Musk, who made a fortune founding and selling the online purchasing service PayPal; he is further ahead in developing his Falcon rocket, which was due to debut this fall. Musk’s company, SpaceX, has also won NASA development funding, and has a more traditional ground-launched rocket of its own design and manufacture. Starting small, with small payloads, Musk aims to get the cost to orbit down to $1,000 per pound, or one-tenth the current price.

Gump says that t/Space, and a few other “alt.space” efforts like Musk’s, are like small, intelligent mammals running around among the dinosaurs, the traditional aerospace contractors that supply NASA. Recently, he says, some of the big companies have been “rubbing up against us, to get a little of that mammal smell.” If t/Space and the others make something happen, the aerospace contractors may end up coming to them, or incorporating their ideas.

First they’ll have to survive, though. For now, it’s not certain how NASA means to encourage the upstart companies, who typically don’t have the experience or the money to compete with the big boys. Says NASA’s Neil Woodward, the paperwork alone can be crushing for a company with a small staff, like t/Space. “They don’t have dozens of people in accounting and personnel to deal with the huge amounts of data that we would normally be required to ask for under the federal acquisition regulations,” he says.

Fast-moving entrepreneurs like Hudson have generally preferred working with the Department of Defense. “DARPA buys smart,” he says, basing its contracts on results and performance goals rather than on pages of detailed specs that have to be followed to the letter. He’s hopeful NASA will convert to that practice as well.

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