Robert Bigelow, founder and President of Bigelow Aerospace, believes that space property rights are essential in order to establish a space industry operating beyond Low Earth Orbit. In an effort to move forward the discussion on property rights, Bigelow is seeking clarification from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) on whether launching a Moon habitat allows them to have a zone of operation in which other persons are prevented from entering.
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Bigelow seeks clarification from AST on their Moon property rights:
In an interview with NASASpaceflight.com, Mike Gold, Director of D.C. Operations at Bigelow, indicated that the company submitted, last December, a payload review to the AST of its lunar habitat in which it requested the AST to confirm that no future license issued by the AST would interfere with the operations of their lunar habitat.
In their request Bigelow asked the AST to create a zone of operation in which other U.S. entities would not be able to enter.
According to Mr. Gold, this zone of operation on the Moon would be organic – i.e., it could increase or decrease in size depending on the circumstances – and would be limited to what Bigelow could reach and utilize from their Moon module.
For a robotic payload, this zone would be relatively small but would be larger for a human payload such as a habitat. Because it would be organic, a habitat that does not have a crew in it would have a smaller zone of operation than one that is inhabited.
Mr. Gold believes that this zone of operation would be consistent with the United States obligations under (Article IX of) the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which requires states to ensure that activities or experiments of their nationals do not interfere with the peaceful exploration and use of outer space.
He mentioned that there is a precedent for a zone of operation since the International Space Station (ISS) has one that extends to 200 km from the station.
Mr. Gold says that although AST is only responsible for launch and re-entry activities, it will not issue a launch license if it believes that there is a safety issue with the payload while it is in space.
For example, the rule that creates a zone of operation of 200 km for the ISS – the rule actually creates a keep-out zone for all manned or “mannable” objects, not just the ISS – is enforced for safety reasons for all payloads that are launched from the United States despite the fact that this zone is in space.
Mr. Gold said that this request to the AST is an attempt to start a discussion on property rights in space. He hopes that the AST will adopt this zone of operation when issuing launch licenses to U.S. companies and that similar agencies in other countries would follow the example of the AST in adopting a similar rule.
Bigelow Report to NASA emphasises the importance of property rights:
The idea of creating property rights to encourage the commercialization of space is not the first time that Bigelow has acted or spoken in favour of creating property rights in space.
In an internal report issued to NASA last November under an unfunded space act agreement (the Gate 2 Report), Bigelow indicated that the creation of property rights is essential in order to create a space industry on the Moon or on other celestial bodies.
“Without property rights, any plan to engage the private sector in long-term beyond LEO activities will ultimately fail. Companies and their financial backers must know that they will be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor relative to activities conducted on the Moon or other celestial bodies, and own the property that they have surveyed, developed, and are realistically able to utilize,” Bigelow writes in the report.
“(It is) nearly impossible at this time to identify exactly what activities will sustain commercial industry on the Moon, mining of resources such as Helium-3, mining rare earth elements, or leveraging fields of solar arrays for power generation are all possibilities.”
Bigelow notes that regardless of whether these ideas come to fruition or not, the granting of property rights could lead to substantial non-governmental funds being invested in space on the basis of the potential that exists for future development.
During the press conference that followed the release of the Gate 2 Report, Bigelow mentioned that he believes that extracting resources from the Moon makes more sense that extracting them from an asteroid.
“People talk about harvesting an asteroid, well, the Moon has been bombarded for billions of years by asteroids especially, the back side of the Moon. So there is probably no material that an asteroid has ever contained that isn’t somewhere on the Moon.”
Mr. Gold believes that the recognition of property rights in space would not violate international law.
“Despite the U.S.S.R.’s initial desires, there is nothing in the OST that would prevent a domestic company from enjoying the benefits of resources extracted from the surface or subsurface of the Moon,” noted the Gate 1 report. “The OST, by design, does not prohibit the extraction and use of Lunar resources by corporations, and instead left this issue to be dealt with in future Treaty.”
Although the issue was later raised in the 1979 Moon Treaty (MT), the fact that the United States and other space fairing nations refused to ratify the MT is telling in his opinion.
One of the main reasons for the United States not to endorse this Treaty was the fact that it prohibited commercial lunar activities.
“The MT’s prohibition of corporate activity and the right to enjoy the benefits of extracted resources were two of the primary reason that the Treaty was rejected by the U.S. Senate,” the Gate 1 report added.
Future private-public partnerships should be modeled after the COTS model:
Bigelow mentions in the Gate 2 Report that future private-public partnerships should be modeled after the model that was used by NASA to develop commercial cargo transportation to the ISS.
The report indicates that NASA has managed to leverage private sector efficiency for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) cargo transportation through the Cargo Orbital Transportation System (COTS) model and suggest that the same model should be used in order to help create a space industry beyond LEO.
More specifically, it indicates that NASA should limit red-tape through the use of Space Act Agreements (SAAs) that have fixed price milestones which focus on the development of specific capabilities instead of having the design dictated by NASA.
Commercial companies entering these agreements should be allowed to retain their intellectual property and should not be prevented from contracting with foreign subsystem suppliers.
Interestingly, Mr. Gold believes that the Commercial Crew Program has moved away from the COTS model.
“As opposed to the recent iterations of the commercial crew program, these SAAs should always require participating companies to have at least some skin in the game, and place some (if not all) of the R&D costs on the private sector.”
Mr. Gold also notes that the recently announced commercial robotic lunar lander capabilities request for proposals for unfunded space act agreements is precisely the type of private-public partnerships that the Report had in mind. However, he added Bigelow is unlikely to participate in that program, but said that he considers that this is the kind of program which NASA should be pursuing through SAAs.
The report also speaks of the advantages of Broad Agency Announcements (BAA).
For companies that already have relatively mature technologies and that don’t need to go through a developmental SAA phase, the use of BAA can allow NASA to act as a good customer that reviews the integration and safety of the systems without dictating the hardware design.
By not touching the corporate intellectual property, requiring commercial skin in the game and utilizing fixed-price milestones, Bigelow believes that the BAA approach reflects all of the core principles of the COTS program.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) – which will be attached to the ISS in 2015 – is a recent example of the use of a BAA by NASA.
Mr. Gold indicated that for that agreement, Bigelow only charged NASA the cost of the module without adding any additional fees for the development of the technology.
He added that the BEAM is a good agreement for NASA as it will only cost them $17.9M for the module and if the module fails, NASA would only have to pay them about $7M.
At the press conference of the release of the Gate 2 report, William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, agreed with Bigelow that BEAM was a good agreement for NASA.
He indicated that it allows NASA to look at expandable technologies and get some actual demonstrations in orbit, and that “We’ll get a chance to see how the module actually expands on space station.
“It’s reported that the module has very good radiation protection. We’ll actually put some radiation dosimeters on the inside and we’ll understand how well the module actually works from a radiation standpoint. It also supposed to be very thermally benign.
“We’ll get a chance to validate that. We’ll also get a chance to look at micrometeorites debris damage on the outside.”
Gerstenmaier further explained that “this isn’t a typical contract that we have with Bigelow but it allows us to gain some experience (to see if) this expandable module make sense and (to see if) it fits into some kind of exploration architecture.”
According to the Gate 1 Report, BEAM will be a valuable technology demonstration which should allow NASA to gather knowledge on the certification process for expandable habitats as part of an integrated human qualified system.
Mr. Gold explained that this process should help in determining what kind of safety parameters will be required by AST prior to launching future inflatable habitats.
He also explained that Bigelow had some discussions with AST about these requirements prior to launching the Genesis I and II inflatable prototypes but because, these modules were eventually launched from Russia in 2006 and 2007 – and not from the United States – the AST payload review for them was never completed.
The BEAM module is scheduled to be launched in June 2015 by SpaceX from the Cape on the CRS-8 flight to the ISS. Gold confirmed that Bigelow was still on target to meet that date.
Anchor tenant needed:
For Low Earth Orbit, Bigelow indicated – during the Gate 2 Report presser – that his company has the financial capacity to pay for at least two BA 330s habitats which should be ready by the end of 2016.
They also have the capacity to pay for two transit tugs which could be used in conjunction with some of their habitats.
He mentioned that one of these tugs would have a docking node on it and could use a BEAM for an EVA opportunity.
However, Bigelow cautioned that his company cannot fund the entire operation without some commercial funding and that they need to sign enough customers to pay for approximately half of the cost of launching these systems to space.
Bigelow indicated that the commercial sector will need NASA as an anchor tenant in order to have a business case for BLEO exploration.
“The new commercial space industry by itself, without an anchor customer, does not just yet possess the strength necessary to formulate and execute human missions beyond LEO.
“As a case in point, Bigelow Aerospace is financially able to build a new generation of LEO and deep space human habitats ready for launch in 2017 (but) Bigelow Aerospace needs an anchor customer to take the business case beyond LEO and to the Moon.”
(Images: via Bigelow Aerospace with permission. Raw imagery – scanned from the paper (no digital version) Gate Reports – are available in L2).
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