Monday, March 06, 2017

NASA's Eclipse by the Private Sector

          By Brian Orlotti

Over the past week, four leading commercial space firms have announced major new projects. In the same time frame, across-the-board US government budget cuts by the Trump Administration have been announced likely targeting agencies including NASA and NOAA.

These events, combined with the ongoing discussions regarding Mars settlement between US President Trump and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, could foreshadow both the NewSpace industry’s rise to preeminence and the eclipse of NASA.

To begin with, and as outlined in the February 27th, 2017 Guardian post, "SpaceX to send two people around the moon who paid for a 2018 private mission," Hawthorne, California based SpaceX announced that it will send two unnamed private citizens on a journey around the Moon aboard a crewed version of its Dragon spacecraft in late 2018.

The two paying individuals will undergo health and fitness tests and begin initial training later this year.

As outlined in the article, "if SpaceX accomplishes the trip before Nasa or another space agency can send astronauts to the moon, it would be the first lunar mission with humans in 45 years, on a course that would extend past the record 249,000 miles traveled by the Apollo 13 astronauts in 1970."

According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, if NASA really wants to go to the Moon, he would be happy to bounce the paying passengers to a later flight.

Bigelow graphic promoting its BA 330 inflatable space module in orbit around the Moon. Graphic c/o Bigelow Aerospace. 

Just days later, Las Vegas, Nevada based Bigelow Aerospace unveiled plans for a orbital lunar outpost by tweeting images of its BA 330 module orbiting the Moon with the caption, ‘If initiated soon, a lunar depot could be in operation by the end of 2020.’

As outlined in the March 1st, 2017 Florida Politics post, "Robert Bigelow: ‘We stand ready’ to send station to the moon," Bigelow Aerospace CEO Robert Bigelow stated that he decided to go public with his lunar plans after hearing President Trump’s February 28th, 2017 speech to the US Congress, which contained a vague reference to “American footprints on distant worlds.”

Bigelow also said he is "picking up President Donald Trump signals that he wants to see something exciting happening with NASA in his first term, and Bigelow believes that is a signal to those inside NASA to start thinking moon again."

Bigelow Aerospace is marketing its B330 module for combined use by private and public sector astronauts focused in industry and research, commercial exploration and space tourism. A Bigelow module is currently attached to the International Space Station (ISS) for testing.

Most of the 200 current employees of the new 180,000-square-foot Virgin Orbit manufacturing facility in Long Beach, California. As outlined in the March 3rd, 2017 Engaget post "Virgin Galactic forms new company for low-cost smallsat launches," the new company will focus "on low-cost small satellite launches based on the company's LauncherOne system." Photo c/o Virgin Orbit.

The next day, the UK based Virgin Group announced the creation of a new spin-off company, Virgin Orbit, that will focus on satellite launches. Operating out of Long Beach, CA, the new firm’s 200 employees will work out of a 180,000-square-foot manufacturing facility.

As outlined in the March 2nd, 2017 post, "Virgin Galactic Unveils Spin-Off Virgin Orbit for Small-Satellite Launches," Virgin Orbit will implement the LauncherOne program, an initiative to launch small satellites from a Boeing 747 aircraft. Under the program, the 747 (named ‘Cosmic Girl’) will carry a ‘LauncherOne’ rocket beneath a wing up to 35,000 feet.

Upon reaching this altitude, the rocket will be released and fire its first stage engine to head into space. The rocket will then separate and ignite its second stage, boosting the vehicle and its payload into Earth orbit.

Amazon's Bezos, eyeing the Moon! Amazon and Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos also owns the Washington Post plus a variety of other business interests, and is listed as the 5th richest man in the world (according to Forbes Magazine annual listing of the World's Billionaires, which excludes royalty and dictators ). Such wealth and power makes to difficult to ignore his pronouncements. Photo c/o Getty.

And finally, on March 2nd, the Washington Post announced that Kent, Washington based Blue Origin is planning to develop a lunar spacecraft with a lander dubbed ‘Blue Moon.’

As outlined in the March 2nd, 2017 Washington Post article, "An exclusive look at Jeff Bezos’s plan to set up Amazon-like delivery for ‘future human settlement’ of the moon," Bezos intends to use Blue Moon to establish an Amazon-like shipping service that would deliver equipment needed to establish human settlements on the Moon by the mid-2020s. Blue Moon could also deploy rovers and scientific instruments meant to study the Moon in detail.

As outlined in the article, "the commercial sector's interest comes as many anticipate support from the Trump administration, which is eager for a first-term triumph to rally the nation the way the Apollo flights did in the late 1960s and early 1970s."

It's also worth noting that, as outlined in the March 6th, 2017 Engaget post, "Blue Origin's latest rocket engine is finally complete," Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos has just announced his company's new BE-4 on social media.

The timing of these firms’ various announcements, along with President Trump’s consultations with the two most prominent NewSpace CEOs (i.e Musk and Bezos), suggest at least some degree of coordination.

The potential hobbling of NASA through large budget cuts and Trump’s stated ambition for new space achievements may provide a power vacuum which the growing NewSpace industry could fill.

Such a turn of events would be the ‘perfect storm’ of opportunity.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network administrator at KPMG and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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