National Space Society Praises Inclusion of Competition in NASA’s Commercial Crew Decision

The Washington DC-based National Space Society (NSS) has been a consistent supporter of competition in NASA’s Commercial Crew program to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). NSS today congratulates the winners of the Commercial Crew competition, Boeing and SpaceX. NSS also thanks NASA for its diligent efforts to maintain real competition in the Commercial Crew program.

The selection of Boeing and SpaceX represents a major milestone toward ending US dependence on the Russian Soyuz to put American Astronauts into space. NSS urges that Congress fully fund this program with full competition at the amounts requested by NASA so that both companies can move forward with dispatch. Further, the continued operation of the International Space Station needs to be funded by Congress to 2024 as requested by the Administration and as far beyond that as practical to enable the full exploitation of the opportunities for commercial research offered by the ISS. A key element of any effort to create more return from the ISS will be the ability of both the Boeing and SpaceX craft to carry up to seven astronauts, potentially allowing the ISS to support a permanent crew of up to 14.

Commercial Crew
Image courtesy NASA

NSS believes that the selection of two Commercial Crew providers is also an essential first step toward the non-governmental development of the resources of Low Earth Orbit (LEO). We look forward to both Boeing and SpaceX supporting Bigelow private space stations in the near future. It is also the hope of NSS that Sierra Nevada will find non-NASA funds to continue the development of its Dream Chaser lifting body.

NSS Executive Vice President Paul Werbos summed up the situation: “This is a great moment for Boeing, SpaceX, and NASA. The door to the American future in space is opening wider, and we need to ensure that Commercial Crew is fully funded to keep it that way.”

NSS Home District Legislative Blitz August 2014

NSS is organizing a “home district” blitz during August when Congress is in recess and members of Congress are most probably in their home districts. The themes for the blitz include supporting Commercial Crew, advocating for ISS extension and utilization, supporting commercial space, and protecting the Earth against asteroids and comets (see the NSS Blitz Talking Points). The August Blitz is a self-starting, NSS member centered activity. A slide set of guidelines on how to initiate and organize a visit to your Representative/Senator can be found here. AD ASTRAs for the visits can be ordered from before August 8th at the latest on a first come, first served basis.

If you are interested in participating in the home district visits please send an email to This email should contain your contact information. By doing so, you are giving permission for a state/district coordinator to contact you for purposes of organizing home district visits. We especially encourage multiple volunteer coordinators for larger states such as California and Texas. Thanks in advance for your support.

Dale Skran, Deputy Chair, NSS Policy Committee    

SpaceX Announces Progress on Reusable Rocket

SpaceX released the following statement July 23:

Following last week’s successful launch of six ORBCOMM satellites, the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage reentered Earth’s atmosphere and soft landed in the Atlantic Ocean. This test confirms that the Falcon 9 booster is able to consistently reenter from space at hypersonic velocity, restart main engines twice, deploy landing legs and touch down at near zero velocity.

After landing, the vehicle tipped sideways as planned to its final water safing state in a nearly horizontal position. The water impact caused loss of hull integrity, but we received all the necessary data to achieve a successful landing on a future flight. Going forward, we are taking steps to minimize the build up of ice and spots on the camera housing in order to gather improved video on future launches.

At this point, we are highly confident of being able to land successfully on a floating launch pad or back at the launch site and refly the rocket with no required refurbishment. However, our next couple launches are for very high velocity geostationary satellite missions, which don’t allow enough residual propellant for landing. In the longer term, missions like that will fly on Falcon Heavy, but until then Falcon 9 will need to fly in expendable mode.

We will attempt our next water landing on flight 13 of Falcon 9, but with a low probability of success. Flights 14 and 15 will attempt to land on a solid surface with an improved probability of success.

H.R. 5063: To promote the development of a commercial asteroid resources industry

U.S. Representatives Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA) have introduced bipartisan legislation to expand opportunities and protections for private space companies looking to explore space. The American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act of 2014 establishes and protects property rights for commercial space exploration and utilization of asteroid resources.

“Asteroids are excellent potential sources of highly valuable resources and minerals,” said Rep. Bill Posey, a Member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. “Our knowledge of asteroids – their number, location, and composition – has been increasing at a tremendous rate and space technology has advanced to the point where the private sector is now able to begin planning such expeditions. Our legislation will help promote private exploration and protect commercial rights as these endeavors move forward and I thank Representative Kilmer for working with me to help advance this industry.”

“We may be many years away from successfully mining an asteroid, but the research to turn this from science fiction into reality is being done today,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer, a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. “Businesses in Washington state and elsewhere are investing in this opportunity, but in order to grow and create more jobs they need greater certainty. That’s why I’m excited to introduce this bill with Representative Posey so we can help the United States access new supplies of critical rare metals while serving as a launch pad for a growing industry.”

Currently, rare minerals used to manufacture a wide range of products are found in a small number of countries. This has left the United States dependent on foreign nations for these resources. The limited supply and high demand for these materials, alongside major advances in space technology and a deeper understanding of asteroids, has led a number of private sector investors to begin developing plans to identify and secure high-value minerals found on asteroids and transport them for use here on Earth.

Some rare minerals that could be found within asteroids include: platinum group metals such as platinum, osmium, iridium, ruthenium, rhodium, and palladium in addition to nickel, iron and cobalt.

Posey and Kilmer’s bill would:
• Clarify that resources mined from an asteroid are the property of the entity that obtained them.
• Ensure U.S. companies can conduct their operation without harmful interference.
• Direct the President to facilitate commercial development of asteroid resources.

Copy of H.R. 5063.

National Space Society Calls for Less U.S. Dependence on Russian Space Technology

The Washington DC-based National Space Society (NSS) strongly recommends in a position paper issued today that Congress should fully support the Commercial Crew program in order to restore independent access to the International Space Station (ISS), prepare to operate the ISS without Russian support, again make low-cost access to space a primary goal of U.S. space policy, and avoid replacing the RD-180 engine manufactured in Russia with a single new engine funded via cost-plus development.

NSS recommends that Congress should maintain competition among Commercial Crew providers while avoiding the imposition of additional contractual obstacles to this program. The U.S. must be self-sufficient in rocket engines for critical functions, both civilian and military. If Congress and the Administration decide a new rocket engine program is justified to replace the RD-180 (currently used in the Atlas V), it must result in multiple prototype liquid fueled hydrocarbon rocket engine development winners to promote competition and innovation and stimulate the entire U.S. aerospace industrial base. To increase affordability, to promote risk-sharing and to incentivize results instead of effort, the United States Government might use “other transactions authority” methods that were used to successfully develop the RS-68 and Merlin rocket engines.

Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has threatened to pull out of the ISS in 2020, after which the U.S. portion of the ISS would fall to Earth and be destroyed. Having been warned 6 years in advance, the United States should move systematically but immediately to develop commercial U.S. habitation and re-fuelable propulsion modules or other means of reboosting the ISS before 2020.

Paul Werbos, NSS Executive Vice President, said “The U.S. space program has become far too dependent on Russian technology. It is long past time to change that situation.”

See the NSS Position Paper on U.S. Dependence on Russian Technology.

NASA selects Deep Space Industries for two asteroid contracts

NASA has awarded two contracts to Deep Space Industries Inc. to accelerate the agency’s plans to partner with private industry on asteroid prospecting and harvesting.  One will analyze commercial approaches to NASA’s asteroid goals and how an industry-led asteroid economy can make crewed Mars missions safer, sooner, and less expensive.  The second will examine several small asteroid-prospecting payloads that can be launched as hitchhikers on NASA missions.

Participating with Deep Space on both successful proposals will be Near Earth LLC, which has been raising capital for satellite and space companies since 2002 (and over $15 billion since 1993 at prior investment banks).  It also frequently provides financial and strategic advisory services to major aerospace companies, satellite operators, private equity firms, and hedge funds.

Dr. Mason Peck of Cornell University, a former Chief Technologist for NASA, will collaborate with Deep Space on the small ride-along payloads contract with research into tiny “Sprites” that could be released by the dozens or hundreds during asteroid encounters to gather wide-area data.

“Deep Space brings commercial insight to NASA’s asteroid planning, because our business is based on supplying what commercial customers in Earth orbit need to operate, as well as serving NASA’s needs for its Moon and Mars exploration,” said CEO Daniel Faber. “The fuel, water, and metals that we will harvest and process will be sold into both markets, making available industrial quantities of material for expanding space applications and services.”

“The space industry is transforming with new lower-cost launch options and inexpensive small satellites, trends that Deep Space intends to exploit for its prospecting missions,” said Hoyt Davidson, Managing Member at Near Earth LLC.  “These missions should position Deep Space for the next major growth opportunity in Space — supplying space enterprises and governments with resources found and processed in space.”

The first study will analyze the economic fundamentals of a commercially oriented Asteroid Initiative, and document the expanded exploration resources that industry could supply to NASA if this course were followed.  NASA would receive greatly improved sampling/surveying technologies for the crew inspecting the captured asteroid at no cost to the agency.  NASA also would gain use of potentially crucial resources harvested from the asteroid without needing to pay for the research and development costs required to unlock them.

Deep Space has several spacecraft types under development for its asteroid mineral surveys, all based on the same core subsystems. In the second study, the company will assess each of these spacecraft for compatibility with NASA’s launch vehicle for its asteroid mission plus the initial launch of NASA’s Space Launch System.  The missions will be designed to further commercial and academic goals through innovations like Cornell’s Sprites.

“Each Sprite is a functional spacecraft weighing less than a penny,” said Dr. Mason Peck.  “Sprites on Deep Space missions will be revolutionary new tools for gathering data across wide areas of interest, both on and around asteroids.”

“A profitable asteroid industry is upon us,” said David Gump, Vice Chair and Director of Marketing for Deep Space.  “During the current prospecting phase, Deep Space revenue sources include providing data to scientists and NASA, and enabling corporate marketers to activate their customers through direct  participation in the asteroid adventure.”

The two system concept studies start next month and will be completed in six months in support the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  The full NASA announcement of the contract awards is at

NSS Issues Political Action Network Alert in Support of Commercial Crew

On June 5, 2014 NSS issued an alert to the NSS Political Action Network concerning support for Commercial Crew in the current Senate Appropriations Bill.  The alert can be found at:

The alert calls for requesting full funding for Commercial Crew at $848 million as requested by NASA, rather than the $805 million appropriated by the Senate, or the House allocation of $785 million.  In addition the alert calls for the removal of language that would impose FAR (Federal Acquisitions Regulations) accounting on fixed price Commercial Crew and Cargo contracts, with the intent of making these programs more expensive and slowing them down. Additional information on Commercial Crew can be found in the recent NSS position paper at:

SpaceX Completes Qualification Testing of SuperDraco Thruster for Launch Escape System on Dragon Spacecraft

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) announced that it has completed qualification testing for the SuperDraco thruster, an engine that will power the Dragon spacecraft’s launch escape system and enable the vehicle to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.

The qualification testing program took place over the last month at SpaceX’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas. The program included testing across a variety of conditions including multiple starts, extended firing durations and extreme off-nominal propellant flow and temperatures.

The SuperDraco is an advanced version of the Draco engines currently used by SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft to maneuver in orbit and during re-entry. SuperDracos will be used on the crew version of the Dragon spacecraft as part of the vehicle’s launch escape system; they will also enable propulsive landing on land.  Each SuperDraco produces 16,000 pounds of thrust and can be restarted multiple times if necessary.  In addition, the engines have the ability to deep throttle, providing astronauts with precise control and enormous power.

The SuperDraco engine chamber is manufactured using state-of-the-art direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), otherwise known as 3D printing.  The chamber is regeneratively cooled and printed in Inconel, a high-performance superalloy that offers both high strength and toughness for increased reliability.

“Through 3D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods,” said Elon Musk, Chief Designer and CEO.  “SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before.”

Unlike previous launch escape systems that were jettisoned after the first few minutes of launch, SpaceX’s launch system is integrated into the Dragon spacecraft.  Eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the Dragon spacecraft will produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch.

As a result, Dragon will be able to provide astronauts with the unprecedented ability to escape from danger at any point during the ascent trajectory, not just in the first few minutes.  In addition, the eight SuperDracos provide redundancy, so that even if one engine fails an escape can still be carried out successfully.

The first flight demonstration of the SuperDraco will be part of the upcoming pad abort test under NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCap) initiative. The pad abort will be the first test of SpaceX’s new launch escape system and is currently expected to take place later this year.

Commercial Crew Needs Competition

The following Op-Ed article appears in the May 12 issue of SpaceNews.

By Paul Werbos, Dale Skran | May. 12, 2014

The SpaceNews editorial “A Feckless Blame Game on ISS Crew Access” [April 14, page 18] defends NASA’s Commercial Crew Program against disingenuous attacks by its congressional opponents. We support many of the points made in the editorial, especially the assertion that the failure of Congress to fully fund Commercial Crew as requested by the White House is the major reason for delays in the date Americans can start flying on American rockets to the international space station. However, we take issue with the suggestion that a down-select to a single Commercial Crew provider is desirable.

We strongly recommend that the following considerations guide the Commercial Crew Program:

  • A minimum of two complete, technologically independent commercial crew systems should be brought to operational status. Commercial Crew can only be fully successful with real competition between multiple U.S.-based service providers.
  • The value of Commercial Crew lies not just in providing the means of transporting astronauts to the ISS without relying on Russian spacecraft, but also in significantly strengthening the U.S. commercial orbital access industry.

There has long been a strain of criticism in Congress that calls for an immediate down-select in Commercial Crew to a single contractor in the name of saving money and moving forward more rapidly. Traditionally, NASA has run “competitive” procurement processes in which a number of proposals are considered, and then one is chosen to be developed into a flight article. This approach, although a reasonable one for experimental or some operational vehicles, is not the best approach for building a new industry.

The traditional NASA approach has the effect of the system or service ultimately being supplied by a single “monopoly” vehicle from a single vendor, and provides no competition that would work to lower costs over time. Commercial Crew, like the Commercial Resupply Services program, is intended to create a situation in which NASA has multiple, independent methods of transportation to and from the ISS. Two fully independent U.S.-based providers combined with occasional use of the Russian Soyuz would be the minimum system to put real competitive pressures on all vendors.

A highly desirable characteristic of a fully successful Commercial Crew Program is the operational availability of two technologically and financially independent solutions. For example, selecting the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser/Atlas 5 and the Boeing CST-100/Atlas 5 introduces a single point of failure, the Atlas 5. It would be equally risky to select as the two solutions the Dream Chaser/Falcon 9 and the SpaceX Dragon/Falcon 9 for the same reason.

In the approved 2014 budget, language exists holding back $171 million of the allocated Commercial Crew funding until the NASA administrator certifies an independent cost-benefit analysis of the program. It should be noted that this level of scrutiny — an independent cost-benefit analysis — is not being applied to other NASA programs such as the Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule.

It is possible to alter the outcome of a cost-benefit analysis via careful selection of underlying assumptions. In the case of a cost-benefit analysis of Commercial Crew, key areas to consider are the operational lifetime of the ISS, the probability that the ISS will be followed by a similar base in low Earth orbit, and the crew size of the ISS.

The Obama administration is proposing an ISS extension for an additional four years, meaning that the anticipated Commercial Crew operations would be extended to 2024. It is very likely, and indeed highly desirable, that the life of the ISS will be extended well beyond this date. NASA has certified that an extension to 2028, an additional four years beyond that just proposed, is possible without major efforts.

The Chinese have announced that their large China Space Station will become operational in the 2020-2024 time frame, and they are currently seeking international partners. It is difficult to imagine that the United States will at just that moment deorbit the ISS, abandoning space research in low Earth orbit to the Chinese.

Thus all analysis of Commercial Crew value should be based on the realistic assumption that: the ISS lifetime is significantly extended beyond 2020; the ISS is replaced with a follow-on U.S./international/commercial station; and/or Commercial Crew vehicles will continue to be used to transport crew to low Earth orbit in support of other future NASA projects, such as assembly of a Mars ship from multiple launches. In all of these scenarios, low-cost, specialized and reliable transport of crew to low Earth orbit will be of continuing value to NASA.

The current size of the ISS crew is limited to six, since only two Soyuz “lifeboats” can dock to the ISS at the same time, and each Soyuz can carry only three astronauts. The introduction of Commercial Crew vehicles that can carry up to seven astronauts allows for expansion of the ISS capabilities to support a crew of up to 14.

Even the use of a single Commercial Crew vehicle would allow for an expansion from six to seven, something that would significantly increase the scientific return from the ISS. The ISS can accommodate one additional long-term crew member with minimal effort.

The ISS also can accommodate multiweek “surges” of additional crew members, as was demonstrated during the shuttle program. Thus, Commercial Crew vehicles could expand the output of the ISS by periodically allowing teams of, for example, five scientists accompanied by two crew members, to live on the ISS for weeks at a time. It is expected that expansion to a permanent crew of 14 might require additional facilities to be added to the ISS. Finally, it should be noted that the number of astronauts on the Commercial Crew vehicles significantly affects the cost per seat. Arbitrary limits of, for example, four astronauts per vehicle artificially increase the cost per seat by a large factor.

The Commercial Crew Program offers the potential to build the foundation for a true private crewed orbital access industry. In the past, the U.S. government has supported the development of new industries in various ways, ranging from federal airmail contracts supporting early aviation to current nanotechnology research centers. The crewed orbital access industry involves not just space tourism but also satellite repair and refueling, industrial research and private commercial space stations. Commercial Crew is a key enabler of this new industry, and can significantly contribute to strengthening the larger U.S. space access industry, which has vast potential for the creation of large numbers of well-paying American jobs.

Strong industries must have competition. A major advantage of the nature of the Commercial Crew Program is that the competitive environment keeps costs low and forces each competitor to seek other markets for its solution. But the development of alternative markets is also related to the timely success of the Commercial Crew

Program. Companies such as Bigelow Aerospace have flown multiple orbital test vehicles to demonstrate some of the technologies that they are planning to deploy to create inflatable private space stations. At one point, delays in the readiness of Commercial Crew vehicles led Bigelow to lay off a substantial portion of its workforce to conserve capital. Although Bigelow has since won a contract to attach an inflatable module to the ISS, its commercial space station plans remain in a holding pattern until the Commercial Crew Program moves to operational status.

We strongly endorse the $848 million 2015 NASA budget request for Commercial Crew, along with the $250 million supplemental request. At a time when the availability of the Russian-supplied Soyuz is being increasingly questioned, we need to move Commercial Crew to the top of NASA’s priority list.

Dr. Paul Werbos is executive vice president and chairman of the National Space Society’s Policy Committee, and Dale Skran is deputy chairman of the committee. For a longer version of this article see the NSS Position Paper: The NASA Commercial Crew Program.