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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Already t/Space, Kistler, and the rest of the crowd are frustrated that NASA has taken months to put out its call for commercial proposals to resupply the space station. “We’re as frustrated as they are,” says Woodward, who pleads for patience in an era of upheaval for the space agency. This time, he says, NASA wants to get it right, and not end up doing more harm than good to the emergent commercial sector. “NASA is a huge organization. We deal with large systems, large sets of requirements, lots of money. It’s very easy for us to pervert the market, in a totally unintentional fashion. Something that’s not a big deal to us is a huge deal to a smaller company.”

Still, the agency has to satisfy itself that any unproven company can deliver what it’s promised, safely, for the advertised price. And it needs a Plan B in case the new guys don’t come through—the CEV is in fact being designed to take people and cargo to the space station (as well as to the moon) just in case. Regarding safety and reliability, Woodward expects that t/Space and others will fly its own crews and payloads first to prove that the system works. “When it gets to the point where they’re flying NASA personnel—astronauts or scientists or what have you—or interacting with a NASA facility like the space station, we would have to look at the ‘human rating’ rules. But if they have a well-designed vehicle and a well-tested vehicle, that’s not as large a hurdle in most cases as a lot of people make it out to be.”

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who has experience in the nimbler Pentagon space procurement culture as well as the commercial sector, said during a news conference in September, “NASA has not had at its upper levels a manager or an administrator more supportive of commercial enterprise than I.” Griffin has publicly stated that he will initiate a commercial market for the station resupply service and that he will “place some bets” (probably by investing R & D funds) on this market. He would prefer that proposers “have skin in the game,” shorthand for bringing in private equity, to show financial health, because one or two NASA missions a year won’t be enough to sustain a business. But that may not be an inflexible requirement. Says Woodward, “It would be best if NASA were agnostic on this. I don’t care where you’re getting the resources that you need. I don’t care if you’re getting them because no one in your company is working on salary, or you’ve got a rich brother-in-law, or you’ve got a [venture capitalist] who’s willing to stake you.”

As of mid-October, the t/Space team couldn’t predict exactly what NASA will request, or when. But they know what they’d like to do. If funded in early 2006, they’ll propose a first manned test flight in early 2009 (ahead of NASA’s CEV), using their own crews. They’ll fly multiple times in orbit to prove to NASA (and all other comers, including potential space tourists and astronauts and scientists from other nations) that their system is safe, then contract it out at $5 million a seat—eventually less.

“People have spent billions trying to do what [t/Space] hopes to do for millions,” says one observer, Lori Garver, a former NASA policy official and now a space analyst at DFI International in Washington. “But Gump and Hudson are in it for the long haul. Both of them have made personal sacrifices in their lives to try to make commercial spaceflight happen.”

Another former NASA official, now working at one of the established, or “heritage” (read: dinosaur), aerospace contractors, thinks that the t/Space price projections—$20 million a launch and $500 million to develop the entire system—are optimistic. “You can demo anything once or twice,” says the official, who asked not to be identified. But “when they need to scale up, they will come up to costs that may be comparable with the offerings of the major contractors.”

Hudson, Gump, Voss, and Alexander relish the opportunity to prove him wrong. With the last of their $6 million stake from NASA this year, they decided to do one more test. Having demonstrated their air launch release mechanism, fired their engine (for DARPA and the Air Force), and mocked up the capsule design, they elected to test the reentry. Last August, they chartered a Sikorsky S-61 helicopter flying out of Crescent City, California, and took a full-scale, water-ballasted 8,000-pound CXV capsule up 10,000 feet over the Pacific. Then they dropped it to see how the chutes would open and how the crew and craft might fare.

Gump was in Crescent City for the test, but the rest of the team was working other jobs. Voss and Alexander were in D.C. for a rare bit of face-time with the NASA administrator. During their meeting, the test results came in from California. Gump reported that two of the three chutes had opened, and that the capsule was intact and being towed back to the harbor for inspection. Hearing the news, Griffin said to his guests that two out of three wasn’t bad. “Shows you’ve got some redundancy built into the system,” he said.

With a NASA administrator like Griffin, and with the shuttle about to retire, perhaps the planets really are aligned this time for a new kind of launch business.

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