Griffin gives boost to Private Space Entrepreneurs

NASA administrator Mike Griffin is working to define a role within the space program for a new breed of private rocket company, just as SpaceX prepares to solidify their position with a first launch.

Griffin gave a personal glowing testimony for NASA’s aim to work with commerical enterprise during Monday’s press conference to announce plans to return to the Moon.
“NASA has not had at its upper levels a manager or Administrator more supportive of commercial enterprise than I,” stated Griffin at the unveiling of NASA’s new lunar mission architecture.  “We are baselining, in the out years past the retirement of the shuttle, commercial service to the Station. That is the only known and knowable, at this point, market for the entrepreneurs that I have to give.”

This public show of support for private space enterprise should certainly be heartening for SpaceX, the best positioned of the new private players to fulfill this vision.  This month SpaceX announced plans and paying customers for its Falcon 9 launcher, capable of lifting payloads of up to 25 metric tons to low earth orbit.  SpaceX founder Elon Musk listed ISS cargo and later crew transportation as one of the primary intended uses for the Falcon 9.

Administrator Griffin’s strong public show of support is unlikely to come as a surprise to those closely following his recent statements. At a speech before the AIAA Space 2005 Conference three weeks ago, Griffin stated that “Utilizing the market offered by the International Space Station’s requirements for cargo and crew will spur true competition in the private sector”.  Griffin further noted that a competitive ISS manned and unmanned resupply process should be established as official space policy.  

On Monday, Griffin reiterated that NASA would be starting a new procurement program this fall to try to stimulate the potential private market for ISS resupply.  “Our fondest desire would be to keep NASA on the very frontier of space activity, letting commercial providers fill in for those activities that are not frontier
activities,” he said.  “We will be putting some money where our mouth is.”

In fact, NASA is already directly engaged with SpaceX.  In June, NASA and SpaceX signed a Space Act Agreement for the development of human spaceflight hardware.  This Space Act Agreement initiates a collaborative R&D partnership that gives SpaceX access to NASA facilities, expertise and equipment.  Indeed, the Falcon 9 specifications are remarkably appropriate for the launch requirements of the manned Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) and unmanned ISS resupply modules announced by NASA on Monday.  Clearly the Falcon 9 is being offered as a possible commercial alternative to the Solid Rocket Booster-derived Crew Launch Vehicle.

SpaceX has many hurdles to pass before it becomes a viable option for NASA, however.  SpaceX has yet to launch its first small payload on its single engine Falcon I.  The first launch has recently been delayed until at least the end of October after one of the Falcon’s new main-stage Merlin engines failed while under test in Texas.  Even more daunting is the confidence-building process of “human rating” the SpaceX launcher for manned space flight; a process that is without precedent for a private launch enterprise.  SpaceX maintains that the Falcon rocket family has been designed from the beginning for human space flight, but clearly guidelines and confidence will have to be well established before a manned capsule with a NASA logo is launched.

SpaceX will also face competition from the established, and Department of Defense supported, Atlas V and Delta IV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs).  The US Government has made a serious commitment to supporting the EELV launch systems, and they have similar capabilities to both the proposed SRB-derived Crew Launch Vehicle and Falcon 9. The EELV’s also have the added advantage that they are already flying. In his AIAA address, Griffin outlined an agreement he had reached with DoD Defense Research and Engineering Director Ronald Sega.  Under this agreement, NASA agreed to utilise the EELV’s for unmanned NASA launches where practical, including for ISS resupply missions. However, Griffin maintained a clause in the agreement that new commercially-developed launch capabilities may compete for these ISS missions.

Clearly Griffin is aware of the risk of leveraging the private sector. “It is not acceptable for a publicly funded program not to have a way of meeting its mission requirements in the event that commercial operators do or don’t materials,” Griffin said on Monday, emphasizing that no part of the lunar mission architecture relies on a private space market.  “No one would ever say that the government and the government Prime Contractor activities represent the most efficient use of the nation’s resources; however, they do pretty much guarantee that we get a product.”

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