On Friday NASA hosted a ceremony recognizing Armadillo Aerospace for winning Level One of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, one of the agency’s Centennial Challenges prizes. There were congratulatory speeches, the presentation of an oversized check, and photo opportunities. Mixed in with all this were some new announcements about commercialization efforts by NASA by administrator Mike Griffin, who popped in to give a brief speech during the event. (“I apologize I can’t really stay longer,” he said. “I’m not actually one to pop into a ceremony, offer up a bunch of congratulatory platitudes, and hand out a big check. I think that’s Ed McMahon at Publishers’ Clearinghouse.”)
Griffin called parabolic flight services, like those provided by Zero Gravity Corporation, “another real opportunity for us to turn to the commercial sector to meet our requirements,” in this case for reduced gravity research and related applications, a market Zero-G had been trying for some time to access before winning a NASA contract early this year. Griffin said that NASA has completed several flight tests with Zero-G to see if their service can meet NASA’s needs for flight experiments; those test flights included several experiments funded under NASA SBIRs.
“Tests aren’t yet complete, but project managers are confident that Zero-G can meet our needs,” Griffin said. “Thus, we’re planning for the transition of all microgravity flight activities from the NASA C-9 to commercial aircraft.” The C-9 will be retained for space shuttle training work, and as a backup to Zero-G, but Griffin said that “our primary path will be commercial.”
Griffin’s announcement of the commercialization of parabolic flight services came after he discussed another commercialization effort within NASA, purchasing suborbital flight services from emerging companies for scientific research or even astronaut training. Griffin spoke the same day as the deadline for two requests for information on human-tended suborbital science and other research. There has been some concern in the industry that NASA was dragging its heels on this, particularly after one of its biggest proponents, associate administrator Alan Stern, left NASA earlier this year. His replacement, Ed Weiler, appeared to some to be less than enthused about the concept.
Griffin, though, indicated that he continued to support the idea of purchasing such services when companies start flying. “When the capability becomes available, we will purchase seats for various science payloads, microgravity experiments, and perhaps even astronaut training,” he said. “We’re not interested in doing ‘junk science’ just to fly it, and we’re not interested in subsidizing suborbital space tourism development as we are, in the same fashion, doing with COTS… But we do plan to leverage this new capability when it emerges to improve the science that we can conduct as we do today on sounding rocket missions or to lower our costs. You should see more about this initiative in next year’s budget request.”
That interest in purchasing parabolic and suborbital flight services, though, does not extend to one popular proposal in the entrepreneurial space community: accelerating the option in the COTS program for crew transportation, known as Capability D. “I’ve been asked on many occasions for my opinion on commercial crew transportation to ISS,” Griffin said. He said that commercial cargo transportation is “our more critical need”, given the lack of cargo alternatives to the station once the shuttle is retired, but that NASA can continue to acquire crew transportation from Russia.
“While I certainly wish I had more money to invest in developing COTS crew capability—along with many other things I wish I had more money for—I think it’s unwise to raid other accounts to increase our bet on COTS crew capability,” he said. Advocates of COTS-D, though, will likely note that the $400 million NASA will spend on the two-year Mars Science Laboratory launch delay—to apparently be paid for by raiding the accounts of other Mars and planetary missions—would be more than enough to fund the Capability D option in SpaceX’s existing Space Act agreement.