NASA has a number of opportunities for the future, including ways to partner with the private sector, but those effort face challenges that are often in the form of opposition from Congress, NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver said Friday.
Garver, giving a keynote speech Friday at the NewSpace 2013 conference—an event with a particular focus on commercial space—in San Jose, California, outlined what she saw as some opportunities for the agency to work with the private sector, including the agency’s asteroid initiative. She said the recent request for information (RFI) for the program had generated more than 400 responses, and the agency was just beginning to review them. “We could not be more excited about this opportunity,” she said.
The challenge, though, is that the agency’s asteroid initiative has run into opposition from some in Congress. “There are a few people—you can argue staff or members—on the Hill in a few key places who think that this is going to keep us from going back to the Moon,” she said. “Our challenge is to help people understand that not at all what this mission will do. This doesn’t sidetrack anything.”
Later, talking with reporters, Garver said she was uncertain if the RFI responses and NASA’s analysis of them would help build a stronger case for the asteroid initiative for those in the House in particular who have opposed it. “We’ll see if they’ll be more supportive as we address the actual criticisms they have had,” she said, “or if it really is just something that we’re not going to be able to get consensus on because of the partisan nature of Washington right now.”
Garver saw similar challenges with NASA’s commercial crew program. “We have bipartisan support, but it still seems to be something that a few key folks on the Hill… seem to want to cut this budget,” she said in her conference speech. “Why is it that this program doesn’t have broader support?”
“To keep competition as long as possible, and to accelerate the time when we are no longer sending money to Russia but spending those dollars with US companies, we need the full funding. We need as close to the full funding as we can get,” she told reporters later. She said the Senate appropriations bill, which offers $775 million for the commercial crew program—a little less than the $821 million requested by the administration—would be good. The House version of that bill, however, only offers $500 million for the program. Garver didn’t explicitly say, though, whether the lower House funding would cause NASA to slip the planned 2017 date for beginning commercial crew flights to the ISS.
Garver also mentioned in her speech a couple less controversial initiatives. One is an RFI released in early July regarding commercial lunar landers. “This will be our first step in assessing interest in public-private partnerships to jointly develop a robotic lander that could demonstrate technologies that enable research for government and commercial customers,” she said of the new RFI.
That, she said, is part of a broader suite of efforts, ranging from NASA’s LADEE lunar mission slated for launch later this year to a study by Bigelow Aerospace under a NASA Space Act Agreement on commercial lunar exploration architectures. “Does it sound like we’re not going back to the Moon?” she said. “Our lunar strategy would open up the Moon for a truly sustained lunar presence, and one that would extend our economic sphere of influence.”
She also mentioned the Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities synopsis released by NASA earlier this month to identify potential ways NASA could support commercial space ventures through unfunded Space Act Agreements, in a manner analogous to the COTS and CCDev efforts. “This is an exciting development,” she said, stating there was interest in this new effort not just from outside organizations, but from within NASA itself. “We’re energized by this,” she said. “It really is a sea change.”