NASA Reorganizing to Sharpen LEO Commercialization Efforts, MacDonald to Oversee CASIS

NASA Reorganizing to Sharpen LEO Commercialization Efforts, MacDonald to Oversee CASIS

NASA is reorganizing its human spaceflight office to sharpen its efforts at commercializing low Earth orbit (LEO).  NASA’s goal is to become only one of many customers using the International Space Station (ISS) and future LEO space facilities. The agency is moving out quickly to respond to a highly critical review of how non-NASA research is managed on the ISS, but acknowledges that it has work to do in convincing Congress that it has a viable plan.

Doug Loverro, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), spelled out NASA’s goals and plans for LEO commercialization in a webinar for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) today.

Doug Loverro, Photo Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Loverro became head of HEOMD in December and is taking a fresh look at all of its activities from operations of the ISS to commercialization of LEO to executing the Artemis program.

An Independent Review Team (IRT) chaired by Besty Cantwell of the University of Arizona recently issued a scathing report about how the non-profit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) is managing research aboard the ISS National Laboratory (ISSNL), the portion of ISS research facilities set aside by Congress in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act for research by non-NASA agencies, industry and academia. The report was equally critical of NASA’s management of the Cooperative Agreement between the agency and CASIS.

The ISSNL research is a critical element in convincing private sector companies that there is a market for commercial follow-ons to ISS.  NASA will need access to research facilities in LEO indefinitely, but has no plans to build another earth-orbiting space station to succeed ISS, which is just about to celebrate its 20th anniversary of permanent human occupancy. NASA wants to lease whatever it needs from commercial operators of new space facilities, but first needs to help make the case that it can be a profitable enterprise. Getting the ISSNL house in order is a key step towards that goal.

One of the many IRT recommendations was that NASA name a single individual as the point of contact to oversee CASIS and ensure the agency is speaking with one voice on budget, strategy, and the NASA liaison function established by Congress in the 2008 NASA Authorization Act.  NASA agreed.

Alex MacDonald, NASA Chief Economist. Photo Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Today, Loverro announced that Alex MacDonald, NASA’s Chief Economist, will be the ISSNL Program Executive.  MacDonald obtained his doctorate from the University of Oxford on the long-run economic history of American space exploration and has written on the economic development of LEO.  He began working at NASA in 2008, first at Ames Research Center, then the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and since 2014 at NASA Headquarters.  He was named NASA’s Chief Economist last September.

More broadly, however, Loverro sees the need to reorganize HEOMD to “focus all of our commercial work under one dedicated set of leaders.”

The commercial LEO effort is just one part of NASA’s drive to rely more heavily on the private sector and public-private partnerships (PPPs).  HEOMD already is executing the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs as PPPs and plans to use those models for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon and someday go to Mars.

Commercial crew, commercial cargo and CASIS have all been managed separately until now, but “we’re putting those all together so we can make sure that they are synergistic.”

NASA must “lay the framework in order for the industry to flourish” and that includes doing a better job of engaging with industry and having a more business focused decision process. “We are not the ones who are going to … make LEO commercialization successful, the business world” will do that.  Loverro pointed out there already are 17 commercial facilities aboard ISS right now, such as Made in Space’s 3D printer, but NASA is the “bundler” that controls access.  It wants to move to a new paradigm where NASA is just one of many in a “multi-user LEO economy.”

Source: NASA. Screengrab from Loverro presentation to AIAA, April 20, 2020.
Source: NASA. Screengrab from Loverro presentation to AIAA, April 20, 2020.

NASA released a pricing policy last year to create a more businesslike environment so companies can more easily figure out how to get access to ISS and its facilities.  A recent contract award to Axiom to build a commercial module that initially will be attached to ISS, but eventually fly separately is a welcome indication that there is private capital  in the market to build space habitats, Loverro added. It means NASA and CASIS are no longer the only ones looking for business in space. NASA also is an angel investor for several companies, providing seed money to help them get started, though he stressed they will have to find their own follow-on rounds of funding, not rely on the government.

Source: NASA. Screengrab from Loverro presentation to AIAA, April 20, 2020.

Loverro is optimistic that commercializing LEO is “very possible” especially since NASA itself will have an ongoing need and will pay for such services.

One question is whether Congress will go along.  NASA requested $150 million for LEO commercialization in FY2020. Congress appropriated only one-tenth of that, $15 million.  Loverro acknowledged that NASA clearly has not convinced Congress that it has a viable plan and “that’s on us.”

“It’s a lot of money to ask for and we’ve got to go ahead and show both a strategy that makes sense and we’ve got to show the business concerns that I think Congress is expecting us to show and we’ve got to show some successes that demonstrate that we truly can go ahead and make this vision come true. … The Axiom award helps demonstrate that there is a there there. I think the demand stimulation work shows that there are companies who are willing to go ahead and join us on this quest.  Obviously facilities that already are in space speak volumes that the commercial world believes there are users wanting to use those facilities. But it’s a tall order to move from those initial steps to fully commercialized LEO. So I am optimistic, but I am not naive. I know that our job is to go ahead and convince the Congress we have a plan and if I can’t do that, then I don’t deserve the dollars.”



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