Pass the Baton or Short Track Speed Skater Push


As I watched the Winter Olympics this week I was struck with how it was a great metaphor for NASA and commercial space.  I know it sounds like a stretch but let me explain.  This week at the 13th Annual Federal Aviation Administration AST Space Transportation Conference, NASA’s Deputy Administrator Lori Garver reiterated NASA’s commitment to transition access to Low Earth Orbit to the commercial community.  Before and after her speech there has been a lot written on both sides of the debate on the viability of commercial space and the impact to NASA’s Human Exploration capability.


Of course there is a lot of emotion tied to the arguments on either side, but for me what is missing is an informed dialogue of what it would take to make this transition successful.  Many assume that the transition to the commercial community would be equivalent to NASA throwing 50 years of Human Spaceflight over the fence and saying “Good Luck.”  This is irresponsible and would severely jeopardize the success of the commercial community.  NASA has learned through the blood, sweat, tears and lives of some of our friends the difficulties that must be overcome to gain access to space.  It is a lesson filled with what works and what must not be overlooked if you want to ensure the safe return of future space travelers.  For me it is inconceivable to throw away that experience without ensuring that it is captured by the commercial space community.


So originally I thought that NASA must pass the baton to commercial space and ensure that it has the baton before we let go of it.  This metaphor originally made a lot of sense to me.  There is a handoff and not a toss over the wall and there is a confirmation that the baton is received before the runner takes off after the competition.  Plus it is a team.  The two are working together to ensure the success of American access to space.  They are not competing against each other and the success of the recipient of the baton depends greatly on the racer that is handing off the baton.


Yet, as I watched Apollo Ono and the US Olympic short track relay team I realized that there is a flaw in just having a clean handoff.  What impressed me about the speed skaters is how the team skates side by side to ensure that they are ready for the push.  They have to match their speeds to ensure that the momentum is maintained.  Then the momentum of the skater that is currently on the track is used to help accelerate the next person on the relay team.  In addition there is a relay rule that was shared by the commentator that really hit home for me.  In the event of a fall, a covering skater may tag the fallen skater and continue the race. 


Therefore for me it is not a question of how do we handoff the responsibility of access to Low Earth Orbit to commercial space but how do we ensure that the commercial space community reaches a speed close to what NASA has obtained over the past 50 years so that NASA can push them off to continue the race?  How do we set up the transition so that in the event that commercial space should fall, NASA can tag the fallen and temporarily continue the race?  Yes I know, with the completion of the Shuttle program the push off is more of a challenge yet not impossible.  NASA has a great deal of momentum after 50 years and the missing strategy is how to capitalize on this momentum to help push the commercial community.  What does it mean in the access to space event to tag the fallen and temporarily continue the race? What is the strategy to ensure that NASA and the commercial community “skate” side by side to ensure that commercial space has the momentum to receive the push? 


I believe that there is a winning strategy out there to ensure the success of commercial space and the launching of NASA beyond Earth’s orbit.  So, who is up to the challenge of sitting down and defining this strategy?


Sharing the Vision,

Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office


Out there. Thataway


Ok, my turn.  Everyone and their sister have given their spin on the new NASA budget and the views have covered the full spectrum of the death of Human Spaceflight to the birth of a new era and the rebirth of robotic exploration.   But before I weigh in on the discussion I first would like to take my hat off to all of my friends and colleagues that have given so much of their lives, energy and passion to support the congressional and presidential direction of the previous administration.  As a government agency we know that we are subject to the winds of change with each election but it does not stop us from committing our hearts and minds to fulfilling the visions and expectations of the American public and the officials that they place in office.  There is a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on regarding the Constellation program, but not enough is being said about the dedicated individuals that gave up time with family to help America retain its ability to reach to the stars.  Again, my hat goes off to them.


Now, back to the direction given by the President.  For me there are three main thrusts that I would like to offer my perspectives.  The first is the move to shift access to Low Earth Orbit to the commercial community.  Many are surprised by this move, but for me it was only a matter of time.  Back in 2008 I had shared how there was a growth in the commercial space community and we would eventually need to answer what affect this growth will have in our role in the Human Exploration of Space.  As I shared in It’s Getting Crowded out there, we would have to make a choice whether to compete in this era of growing capability or lead the way beyond earth’s orbit.  Well, the decision has been made for NASA and now we have to make it work.  It is akin to the explorers that would burn the ships in order to keep them from turning back.  NASA is being pushed to the stars and out of the access to space business.  That being said, NASA has a responsibility to work with the commercial community to share their 40 years of Human Spaceflight experience and expertise.  It is incumbent upon us to help them to learn from our successes and mistakes in the hope that they will not repeat the lessons we learned.  How this is to be done is yet to be defined but I for one am looking forward to the release of the strategy of how we make this transition. 


Secondly there is a return to “transformational technologies”.  I am amused by all of the eye rolling that is associated with that phrase.  Weren’t the technologies that enabled the Saturn V, transformational?  Weren’t the technologies that enabled the computers on the Lunar Lander transformational?  Isn’t the technology that allows us to look back to the birth of the universe transformational?  I think this agency has been and should always be about transformational technologies.  It has always been about pushing the envelope of what is possible or as some like to say “making science fiction a reality.”  Yes, I agree you cannot schedule when a miracle will occur.  We cannot say that “On July 29th, we will discover how to tap into the limitless supply of ‘zero point energy’ in the vacuum of space and it will enable us to power our voyage to Mars.”  No, but just because it can’t be scheduled doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work hard to discover the next leap in technology.  Let commercial space focus on technologies that we know and let NASA focus on technologies yet to be discovered.


Finally there is the anxiety related to a lack of destination.  The recurring sentiment is that we need a bold direction like, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Similarly the question is raised, “How can we focus on transformational technologies if we don’t know where we are going?”  Although valid perspectives I believe that NASA has an opportunity to rethink how it explores.  We always think of exploring as starting from the Earth’s surface.  It focuses on a certain set of solutions that require breaking the gravitational pull of the Earth.  But what if we started thinking of exploration starting from space?  What would be required to start our journey from space?  What vehicle would be required if it never encountered the Earth’s atmosphere?  What would you need to create a vehicle in space?  NASA has learned quite a bit from its 10 years of constructing the International Space Station.  How can we use this knowledge to create an interplanetary vehicle?  What would it take to fuel a new vehicle in space?  With a space port would you have to limit your destinations?


Yes a destination would be nice, but I kind of like the perspective from Kirk in the first Star Trek movie when asked where they should go, “Out there, Thataway.”  NASA shouldn’t think point to point but create the ability for us to go “out there.”


Sharing the Vision,

Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office

2010: Gotta Wear Shades!

Yes, I’m a glass half full kind of guy (and the only reason it is half full is because I already enjoyed the first half).  Recently I took a “change style indicator” assessment that captures a person’s preferred style in approaching change.  The range includes those that are Conservers, Pragmatists and Originators.  I was not surprised to find that I was way over on the Originator side, the side that is more comfortable with change. 

Therefore when I look at 2010 I am excited by the change that is ahead of us.  2010 ends one era, with the completion of the Shuttle program, making room for the next generation of space vehicles.  Yes, the Space Shuttle is an awesome vehicle.  Its capabilities are unmatched and it has served us well over the past 30 years and now it is time to extend our reach.  Now that we have our orbiting International laboratory, it is time to leverage it to enable us to reach new destinations like an asteroid, Lagrange points or even to the moons of Mars.  But it is not just the possibilities of a “flexible path” to extend humanity’s reach to Mars and beyond that is exciting about this coming year.  There are also other changes in the environment that marks us fully entering a new era in Space Exploration. 

This month we saw Richard Branson unveil his latest vehicle, the “Enterprise”, in the midst of a windstorm in California’s Mojave Desert.  The latest Enterprise vehicle is worthy of the name since it will be the first commercial vehicle to take more people closer to space.  We also will see this year the launch of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and get another step closer to commercial cargo access to the International Space Station.  Internationally we will see the first module of the Chinese Space Station, Shenzhou-8, being launched and connected in the future to Shenzhou-9.  Therefore soon we will have two orbiting laboratories in space and some speculate that this will also be an International Space Station with the partners including Iran, Pakistan and possibly North Korea.  Even though this partnership in space could cause some to be concerned, I am reminded of how NASA’s presence in space has created friends out of old enemies.  If it could happen before then I believe that space will allow us once again to create new alliances. Pollyanna?  I don’t think so.  The recent announcement of how NASA is inspiring Muslim students in the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) fields through a collaboration with the Arab Youth Venture Foundation in Abu Dhabi is once again a demonstration of how the agency can bring the world together. In space there are no borders and NASA has continually demonstrated through its exploration programs and inspiration that it exists for the benefit of humanity. 

So get out your sun glasses because 2010 will be bright with the glow of humanity reaching collectively to the stars.

Sharing the Vision,
Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office

Making Money in Space

Last year NASA issued a Request for Information, or RFI, for Commercial Lunar Communications & Navigation. The intent was “to gauge interest and solicit ideas from private companies in providing communications and navigation services that would support the development of exploration, scientific and commercial capabilities on the moon over the next 25 years.” It is a potential next phase of the agency’s emphasis to encourage commercial space as it is doing with the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation System) program in the Commercial Crew & Cargo program office

As I reflected on potentially using a commercial satellite provider to enable the astronauts to “phone home” from the moon, I was curious as to what else has been going on in the world of space commerce. In the process I stumbled across this blog entry by Dr. Peter Diamandis, SUCCESS!!! Using Economic Engines to open the space frontier. In it he reflects on how the public flight of the Rocket Racing League “X-Racer” and the rollout of White Knight 2 were so critical. What caught my attention was his reflection on the X-Racer and how it “is tapping into the multi-billion dollar entertainment marketplace” and it is “a company which is exciting the public about space and driving the development of low-cost and reliable engines.” Of course he states his personal reasons for his enthusiasm about the X-Racer but it made me wonder what else could NASA do to encourage, foster, sponsor space commerce. What role should NASA play in enabling space commerce? For me, the benefit for NASA would be greater infrastructure that NASA could leverage as it explores beyond LEO.

If you haven’t had a chance to place your votes with the recent set of twitter polls focused on NASA’s future focus (NASA poll, Outside of NASA poll) I would encourage you to submit your vote.  You will find an interesting trend on the external poll.  It points to NASA having a greater focus on helping to develop commercial space.  The missing data is what should we do to fulfill this focus?

Let me know what you think our role should be as it relates to commercial space and what other efforts could be taken to spur on space commerce?

Sharing the Vision,
Steven Gonzalez, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office

Commercial Space: Is LEO about to get a little more crowded?

On Monday, January 7th, 2008, at the JSC All Hands, the NASA Administrator was asked to comment on Commercial Space. As he has done in many forums, he shared the analogy of how the commercial airline industry was spurred on by the investment made by the government to transport cargo (primarily mail) which in turn leads to commercial airline travel. With this as a backdrop, he reiterated his commitment to the investment that NASA is making in the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation System) program for transporting cargo to the International Space Station. His stated desire is to get the agency focused on the business of Space exploration and to eventually buy services to low Earth orbit.

I applaud this strategy and at the same time find it interesting how split the space exploration community is on the viability of commercial access to space. Critics believe that as long as we launch on rockets, the commercial community will never be able to make it safe enough for access by the general public and will therefore have a difficult time in making a profit. Alternatively, there are reports by companies like Futron that project the potential space tourism market.

Regardless of on which side of the fence you find yourself, there was one compelling statement made last year by a consultant who does scenario planning for various organizations and industries. When we asked him what he thought about Commercial Space, he stated that he couldn’t comment on their success, but he could state that the collective amount of discretionary funding available by the “New Space” community exceeds the NASA budget. He also stated that they are focused on only one goal, access to space and with that amount of investment focused on one goal; it is only a matter of time before they are successful. So what are some of the investments being made outside of NASA?

Commercial Space Ports

In 2004 MSNBC published this map of the current and future space ports. Since then New Mexico’s Spaceport America was approved by voters and in December, 2005 Sir Richard Branson announced that New Mexico will be Virgin Galactic’s world headquarters. The list continues to grow including the following locations Sheboygan, Wisconsin and Blue Origin’s goal to open a space port in West Texas to the list of space ports in the US.

Internationally, Spaceports are being developed in the most unlikely of places. Pictured to the left is an artist’s illustration of Space Adventures’ concept for a spaceport outside Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Virgin Galactic also recently announced that it would host sub orbital flights into the Northern lights from Spaceport Sweden. Along with Spaceport Scotland, Spaceport Singapore (shown below) is expected to provide suborbital spaceflights, parabolic aircraft flights and other space tourism experiences.

Commercial Access to Space

Space Frontier maintains a growing list of the next Generation of Space companies that are entering the commercial space market. The list includes the New Space Launch Service Companies like SpaceX(COTS award recipient), Airlaunch LLC, Armadillo Space, and Blue Origin. Their list also includes Companies Marketing Russian/Ukrainian Launchers and Space & Zero-G Tourism and Training Companies. Among the more interesting ones are those focused on tourism like Space Adventures and Japan’s first space travel company, Spacetopia. Also intriguing is the company whose goal is to develop the premier crew training program for suborbital flight, Orbital Commerce project. Another growing list on their website is the Infrastructure/Subsystems Companies like Bigelow Aerospace, with whom JSC has an active Space Act agreement to share our expertise and knowledge.

Yet even their list is not complete. There are many more interested in ensuring a continual presence in low Earth orbit and beyond. JSC alumni and astronaut, Leroy Chiao, is working with Excalibur Almaz, who plans on offering week-long flights that deposit tourists at modernized, Russian-designed space stations. Or one of my favorites,The Galactic Suite Space Resort that will “provide a fully integrated space tourism experience by weaving together an astronaut training process with a relaxing time in a tropical paradise island as the preparation for this space journey.” There are also those with their sights beyond LEO, as witnessed by 4Frontiers Corporation, an emerging space commerce company focused on the settlement of Mars. Will they all be successful? Probably not. But what if a handful are successful? Or even just one commercial provider to sub orbit or orbit turns a profit? What will be the ripple effect be to NASA? What impact, if any, will it have on our role in the Human Exploration of Space?

Next time, the International Space community.

Sharing the Vision –
Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office