Hale: Logistics Key To Deep Space Human Exploration, and Commercial Space Is The Answer

Hale: Logistics Key To Deep Space Human Exploration, and Commercial Space Is The Answer

Former NASA space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale told the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space Thursday that it is difficult for his generation to change its “mental model” of the NASA-funded Apollo program as the way for humans to explore space.   The reality today, he stressed, is that the government and the commercial sector must team together and leverage each other’s capabilities because taxpayers are only willing to spend half-a-percent of the federal budget on NASA, not the 3-4 percent in the Apollo era.

Hale, currently the Director of Human Spaceflight for Special Aerospace Services, was responding to a question from Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) at a May 16 hearing on advancing partnerships in the business of space.  As the hearing came to a close, Nelson wanted to know why it is so hard to get people to understand that commercial space activities will “collaborate, supplement, enhance” NASA’s program to send humans beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).

Patti Grace Smith, former FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and now a consultant, agreed that people still associate space activities with NASA and not the private sector even though commercial space launches date back to the 1980s.   “Where we sit is what we know,” she said, and because NASA holds the reputation as “the premier space agency,” it has been challenging to get people to accept that commercial space can succeed.   That perception is changing, she added, with NASA’s new partnerships with the commercial sector and the successful flight of SpaceShipOne in 2004.

Whether the slowly changing paradigm will help win support for NASA’s FY2014 request of $831 million for the commercial crew program, however, is an open question as Nelson made clear. He said that he and Ranking Member Ted Cruz (R-TX) will be working on a new NASA authorization act this year and “in the past, it sure has been difficult to get people to recognize” the value and necessity of the commercial and government space sectors partnering together in human space exploration.

Many in Congress are determined to restore a U.S. capability for launching people into space by 2017, but have not provided NASA with the requested funds for its approach to achieving that goal – the commercial crew program.  The $831 million request is more than $300 million above what Congress provided for FY2013.  Finding that extra money will not be easy, especially since policy issues such as how many companies to support have not been settled and some influential Members remain highly skeptical of commercial crew overall.  The alternative would be using the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, but that system is oversized (and thus expensive) for ferrying crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

More generally, Hale connected the dots between today’s commercial crew and cargo efforts to support the ISS and the longer term future of human space exploration.   ISS itself is crucial for testing technologies needed for long duration spaceflight and ISS needs commercial cargo and commercial crew, he said.  For missions to the Moon and Mars, the key will be logistics, he continued, quoting Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf as saying “armchair generals study tactics, real generals study logistics.”  Lowering the cost of getting mass into LEO will be crucial to supplying logistics for long duration flights beyond LEO.  “Getting mass to [LEO] is halfway to anywhere in the universe.  And if we can supply equipment, fuel, even crews cheaply to [LEO] that has got to be a vital link in ensuring that whatever deep space” missions are mounted will be successful.  “Low cost transportation enables all of that.  That’s what we’re all about in the commercial space enterprises.”

Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Michael Lopez-Alegria was asked about the size of the market for suborbital and orbital commercial human space flight, or space tourism as it often is called.  He cited a 2012 report by The Tauri Group that the suborbital market could be $600 million over the next decade, but said there is no equivalent study of the orbital market.   He is convinced a sizeable market will develop, but could not say when:  “It’s hard to predict markets that don’t exist yet, but … all I can say, like the famous movie quote … ‘build it and they will come.’”

Lopez-Alegria, a former astronaut who made four trips to space, including commanding the ISS, argued strongly in favor of the commercial crew program as well as extending ISS operations to 2028.  Currently the United States and its ISS partners (Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada) have agreed to operate it only until 2020, though NASA believes it technically could remain operational through 2028, 30 years after the first module was launched.

Purdue University’s Steven Collicott testified about the research opportunities enabled by commercial suborbital vehicles, noting that Purdue has a down payment on a spot on a Virgin Galactic flight.   The university does not plan to fly a person, but “200 pounds of automated payload to advance high-tech Indiana industry.”   He also is building payloads to fly on suborbital systems offered by Armadillo, Blue Origin, Masten, and XCOR, as well as a high altitude balloon company, Near Space.  He believes these types of flight opportunities will encourage students to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Smith also argued for extending the FAA’s authority to indemnify commercial space launch services companies against certain amounts of losses if there is an accident for at least 10 years, and for keeping AST within the FAA for the time being.

Prepared statements of the witnesses and a webcast of the hearing are on the committee’s website.

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