NASA Meets New Space—Strategic Partnerships Promise Accelerated Development

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Earth from iss
Earth, as seen from the International Space Station (NASA)

Since before the moon landing, NASA has been the biggest, if not the only, name associated with American space exploration. Last year’s passage of the SPACE Act of 2015 (it took two years to go into full effect) opened up a new realm of possibilities for companies looking to expand their ventures beyond Earth’s soil. The new bill updates existing regulations for the first time in over a decade, and promises to spur innovation in an industry long stalled by lack of government funding.

What will the SPACE Act accomplish?

The legislation, originally passed in November, 2015, encourages the private sector to shoulder some of the financial risks. It also allows astronauts to fly on private carriers, alleviating the agency’s dependence on Russian rocket engines to deliver food and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).

The new bill also ensures that space-mining companies are legally entitled to the resources that they gather from asteroids, which should spur development. The act states that materials an American company finds in outer space become their property, breaking with the idea that materials found in space are to be used explicitly for research and belong to everyone on Earth in equal measure. Basically, the law ensures an investor, at least under U.S. law, the right to profit from extraterrestrial pursuits.

The law also addresses the regulation of the commercial space industry, as well as the continuation of American funding for the ISS.

NASA’s public/private initiatives

NASA has established several important relationships with the private sector: SpaceX and OrbitalATK already deliver supplies to the ISS, and SpaceX just got licensed to shuttle astronauts to the station, as well as a February 6, 2018 launch license for its Falcon Heavy, the largest rocket in use since the retirement of NASA’s Saturn V.

A few setbacks, like the explosion of both OrbitalATK and SpaceX carriers in the last 2 years, illustrate how much is at stake compared to sending satellites into orbit. Additionally, NASA has launched two solicitations in an effort to boost the space economy and help mature technologies at an accelerated rate, and the agency will be partnering with 22 different private companies.

In the first of these solicitations, “Utilizing Public-Private Partnerships to Advance Tipping Point Technologies,” NASA will team up with nine companies to help them advance new technologies past their tipping points. The initiative seeks to enable private sector companies to stimulate the industry by delivering new capabilities for use in future NASA applications, as well as advancing commercial space development. NASA analyzes whether a technology is a “tipping point technology” by determining whether investing in a demonstration of the technology’s capabilities would likely result in significant advancement, entrance into a commercial space application, and the ability to successfully bring that particular technology to market.

NASA, which has a renewed focus on human space exploration, is hoping to leverage these technologies for future space flights. Contracts range between $1 million and $20 million over a two-year period and will culminate in a demonstration of the technologies, which include small satellites, thruster and propulsion systems, sensors, thermal protection sheaths, as well as robots meant to carry out manufacturing and repairs in space. Participants are required to contribute a minimum of 25 percent.

Thirteen companies partnering with NASA as part of another solicitation entitled, “Utilizing Public-Private Partnerships to Advance Emerging Space Technology System Capabilities,” will have the opportunity to develop new technologies, while NASA provides the facilities and expertise needed to see the projects to completion.

NASA moving forward

NASA plans on maintaining the ISS until 2024, at which point it will likely shift its focus once again to cislunar space travel, and eventually a mission to Mars. The ISS program currently costs NASA roughly $3 billion annually, and operational costs are expected to rise to $4 billion by 2020. The agency intends to further explore human space travel and doesn’t have the budget to fund both exploration and the ISS missions.

NASA officials hope the burden of the ISS will fall on the laps of private companies, as the landscape is soon to fill up with new entrants.

With Elon Musk launching a Tesla Roadster into Mars orbit, and WebOne partnering with his company, SpaceX, to pioneer bringing the internet to space, 2018 will be a breakthrough year in space exploration.

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