Commercial space to enjoy larger role with NASA under Trump

Commercial space to enjoy larger role with NASA under Trump

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NASA Transition Act
President Trump signs the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 on Tuesday, surrounded by members of Congress and astronauts. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The private industry is buoyed by President Trump’s efforts to boost commercial space activities. The NASA Transition Act signed by President Trump on March 21 is an important piece of legislation that opens up huge opportunities for the private commercial space industry, feel some players.

“The Act provides robust support for public-private partnerships which will benefit NASA while bolstering private sector innovation and domestic job creation,” spells out Mike Gold, VP, Washington Operations, SSL. Via the NASA Transition Act, the groundwork has been laid to leverage additional public-private partnerships to accomplish increasingly ambitious activities and missions, he adds.

“The pace of technology innovation and infrastructure development within the emerging commercial smallsat industry is tremendous.  We support all efforts on the part of our government — and NASA in particular — to leverage this to meet their broader mission,” says Jason Andrews, Founder and CEO of Spaceflight Industries.

The Act authorizes NASA’s activities and sets general funding levels in categories that add up to a total of $19.508 billion for fiscal 2017. In its budget estimates released the week before, the White House proposed NASA spending at $19.1 billion in fiscal 2018. Now Congress will formulate a detailed spending plan, and the Act is expected to provide guidance for the agency’s activities going forward.

Specific examples of the Act’s support for public-private partnerships includes language directing NASA to leverage commercial satellite servicing capabilities, which have the potential to enhance satellite operations and value while lowering overall costs.  The space agency’s focus on human exploration of planets and establishing a human presence there will also offer much better opportunities for the aerospace industries in the US.

The Act also directs NASA to build future spacecraft in a manner that is compatible with servicing missions. For instance, as Gold points out, SSL is currently working with NASA on the Restore-L program which will demonstrate the ability of a robotic spacecraft to refuel a satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).  Restore-L is a critical mission to demonstrate satellite servicing capacity for use by NASA, the private sector, as well as the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community.

Restore-L satellite servicing mission
The Restore-L satellite servicing mission in LEO. Image courtesy of SSL

Andrews, whose Spaceflight works with NASA through its launch services business, is hopeful that the agency will continue to fund small satellite innovation that leads to future launch services. He is also optimistic that the Act will encourage NASA to use streamlined contracting mechanisms such as the General Services Administration for these new services.

The Act also supports the transition of low Earth orbit (LEO) human spaceflight operations from the government to the private sector.  Specifically, the Act asks NASA to explore the concept of adding a node to the International Space Station (ISS) that will allow multiple private sector companies to dock commercial habitats to the ISS.

“Man-rated rockets and space vehicles will be far more profitable than just rockets and satellites. SpaceX Dragon is to get man-rated. A manned Mission to Mars will create huge opportunities for industry. During the Moon Race the US thought out of the box and came up with a two-vehicle system, the Capsule and the lander which itself was in two parts, the lander and the return capsule. Mars may result is some such out of the box thinking and industry will love it,” says a geospatial industry expert and former ISRO official on the condition of anonymity.

From the Earth observation perspective, Barbara Ryan, the Secretariat Director of the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO) in Geneva, feels this is a great opportunity that the private industry can most certainly take advantage of and opens up newer arenas for users too.

For instance, the Societal Benefit Areas (SBAs) — Biodiversity and Ecosystem Sustainability, Disaster Resilience, Energy and Mineral Resources Management, Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture, Infrastructure and Transport Management, Public Health Surveillance, Sustainable Urban Development, and Water Resources Management — around which the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) project is exerting its efforts, are currently using both space-based and in situ observations. “One can see that many of these issues touch every person every day. From a GEO perspective, our primary interests are three-fold: to ensure that EO inform environmental and policy decisions; to ensure coordinated, comprehensive and sustained Earth observations; and to ensure that data collected with public money is broadly and openly available. While each of these conditions can certainly be met with private providers, many of the current business models preclude this from occurring,” Ryan adds.

But Elon Musk is not smiling

Elon Musk tweetInterestingly, SpaceX Founder and CEO Elon Musk seemed anything but happy. In reply to Recode co-founder Kara Swisher tweet saying “Somewhere @elonmusk is smiling”, Musk tweeted back saying: “I am not. This bill changes almost nothing about what NASA is doing. Existing programs stay in place and there is no added funding for Mars.”

He continued, “Perhaps there will be some future bill that makes a difference for Mars, but this is not it.”

Other space experts like Scot Pace tend to agree with this assessment. “I don’t see the Act as making any major new commitments to commercial activities. It just continues on-going efforts,” says Pace, who is Director of the Space Policy Institute at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

While Pace thinks it is too soon to tell which course the new administration may take, he points out that there are numerous companies that are already seeking to offer commercial cargo services to the Moon (e.g., Astrobotic, Moon Express) and on-orbit research platforms (e.g., Nanoracks, Bigelow Aerospace). Firms that can serve privately driven markets, as opposed to being dependent on government purchases, will tend to have cost and innovation advantages, he adds. There are larger forces driving commercial development, particularly in GPS, GIS, and small satellite constellations, while other emerging activities are still reliant on slower moving government acquisitions.

A large section of space experts thinks that NASA should focus on climbing up the value chain instead of having a finger in every pie. “This is nothing but moving forward with positive spirit to lead NASA into next generations. Let NASA use the money for building next-generation of R&D capabilities and possibilities and allow private sector to take care of commercialization,” says an industry expert while requesting not to be named.

Agrees Andrews: “It is appropriate that, as commercial industries mature, NASA focuses their unique talents and resources on the final frontier of exploration and discovery.”

What is the NASA Transition Act?

“It is the first NASA Authorization Act since the 2010 Act, which ran out in 2013, and thus represents a signal of stability and support by the Congress for NASA. President Trump’s choice to have Oval Office signing ceremony with the Act’s primary authors and supporters, from both parties, was also a welcome sign of support,” says Pace.

The first such authorization passed by Congress in more than six years authorizes the development and execution of a long-range plan for deep space human exploration; invests in robust science, technology and aeronautics portfolios; and endorses the agency’s successful efforts to nurture a new commercial market that will boost US economy and create more jobs.

Interestingly, on papers the new Act keeps NASA mostly on the same course it has been on since the last authorization act in 2010, and could be seen as mainly a way of grounding NASA during the administration change following Trump’s takeover.

However, what is to be noted is Trump’s words after signing the Act into law. While placing a lot of emphasis on the commercial space industry, the President spelt out that the bill will allow NASA to continue working with the private sector. “This bill will make sure that NASA’s most important and effective programs are sustained and orders NASA to continue… transitioning activities to the commercial sector where we have seen great progress… So the commercial and the private sector will get to use these facilities, and I hope they are going to be paying us a lot of money, because they’re going to make great progress,” he said.

Further, Trump highlighted NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the partnership with private industry to facilitate the development of a US commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the ISS and LEO.

“We are excited to see NASA’s renewed commitment to purchasing commercial crew and cargo logistics services, and hope that they can expand or initiate new programs to procure earth science, earth observation and other LEO-based services,” says Andrews.

National Space Council

It seems likely that more details will emerge once the National Space Council (NSC) is resurrected and gets in place. The NSC was last active in 1989-1993, during the George H.W. Bush Presidency and was scrapped when Bill Clinton took over. Before that it had existed in some form or the other starting in 1958, when NASA was created. Now, under Vice President Mike Pence’s leadership, the NSC, which is expected to be announced via an Executive Order soon, will provide guidance on NASA’s future policies.

Nasa Transition Act
Vice President Mike Pence will head the National Space Council. Photo credit: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

“The President will be taking action to relaunch the National Space Council, and he has asked me to chair that, as Vice Presidents have in the past,” Pence said after signing of the Act. “We are going to be bringing together the best and the brightest from NASA and also in the private sector.”

While the NSC was scrapped earlier because it was seen as being too much of top-down approach, it is now felt a central coordination agency is required given the rise of the commercial sector. In the recent years, NASA has been heavily partnering with the private sector — through companies like Boeing, Bigelow Aerospace, SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and many others — to hand off LEO operations so it can focus on deep space exploration. But commercialization of LEO can be possible only if the private sector is able to make a profit and the industry thinks the key to that is deregulation.

Even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and defense agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have keen on public-private partnerships. A centralized NSC could facilitate the process better by re-evaluating regulatory framework in a way that bolsters the private sector, in addition to aiding in international collaborations.

Giving up on Earth Sciences?

This is the tricky part. From the NASA Transition Act and the proposed budget of the space agency, it looks like NASA is moving away from studying Earth while focusing on deep space explorations. NASA’s budget for Earth Sciences in 2017 is about $2 billion out of the $19 billion total and proposes a $100-million cut for its Earth Science division, or 5% of the program’s annual budget.

READ: Proposed NASA budget cuts 4 critical Earth science missions
NOAA budget cut, NASA revamp plans jeopardize US climate research

While Trump detractors believe this is just reflecting the President’s much publicized scepticism about Climate Change, Pace sees the proposed budget as rebalancing science spending to prioritize deep space exploration and the decadal science recommendations of the National Academies of Science.

In the face of NASA ceding the LEO space to private players, questions also arise if it is also leaving the Earth Sciences space to focus on other areas. While NASA remains the only agency capable of studying the entire planet and its changing patterns, the revolution in the EO satellite industry, particularly in the face of proliferating small satellite business, has seen interesting developments in recent times.

As Andrews says, the EO industry is undergoing a commercial revolution.  In the very near future all organizations — government or commercial — will be able to acquire commercial data in every spectrum to observe the planet. “We hope that the government regulatory agencies that oversee this domain continue to streamline their processes to support this revolution.”

Disagrees Pace, who feels Earth Science missions are government driven. While commercial partnerships can create opportunities for more innovative contracting to government, true commercialization requires finding sources of private demand. “Many areas of space activity are already open to commercial development, but being open to development does not mean that all activities will be economically viable or sustainable.”

The former ISRO official see opportunities for other national space agencies in this. “NASA operates many satellites for Earth Sciences which are not within the operating parameters of industry, for example, geodetic satellites. I do not see industry taking on these kinds of studies where there is little scope of profit. If NASA withdraws I see a major opportunity for ISRO to enter this space.”

More than ISRO, however, many experts see this opening up great opportunities for ESA, particularly once its ambitious Copernicus mission in fully place.

However, Ryan, whose GEO has always relied on a suite of governments and organizations delivering Earth observations, explains: “Space is still an expensive venture, and no one country or organization has the requisite resources to deliver space-based observations across the spatial, temporal and spectral resolutions that are required to address the range of issues for which these observations can contribute. The role of space agencies – both private and public – is essential, and will continue to be so.”

There is, however, no doubt on one thing, and Trump’s statements are suggestive of things to come — that commercial space will enjoy a larger role with NASA in the future. Space after all remains one the last of the government-restricted sectors.