NASA Ames to Manage New Emerging Commercial Space Office

A P3 Navy aircraft with Hangar One at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. (Copyright 2008: Douglas Messier)

NASA Ames will assume management of a new Emerging Commercial Space Office that would be created under space agency’s proposed FY 2012 budget, officials said today.

During a media round table this morning with Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, Ames Director Pete Worden said the office would focus on spurring the development of new space technologies that are not covered by other NASA and FAA commercial space centers. The office’s activities would include working with Google Lunar X Prize competitors, adapting smart phones and other off-the-shelf technologies for use in satellites, transferring NASA technology and knowledge to the private sector, and related activities.

The new office would be an expansion of the Space Portal, a five-person office that handles commercial ventures for NASA Ames, Worden said. It would also serve as a clearinghouse for commercial activities across the agency, and consolidate relevant activities taking place at other agency centers across the country.

The media round table was part of a West Coast swing by Garver to promote NASA’s budget and President Barack Obama’s Winning the Future agenda. The deputy administrator is visiting all three NASA centers in California to communicate with agency employees about the agency’s plans and to obtain their inputs. She will witness the launch of NASA’s Glory environmental satellite on Wednesday morning before flying back east to witness the launch of space shuttle Discovery on Thursday.

Calling NASA’s employees one of the nation’s most treasured assets, Garver said the President’s budget included funding for research and development and innovative projects that will allow America to win the future. She praised Ames for being a major center for innovation, and said that investing in NASA is akin to spending money on a college education that pays off in the long run.

“We’re that very, very small part of the budget that is investment,” Garver said.

Worden said that NASA’s proposed $18.7 spending plan is a “great budget” for the country and NASA Ames, which would receive $755 million. The budget allows the center to focus on its four strengths:

  • Small, affordable space science missions
  • Aeronautics – next generation aircraft and control systems
  • Human exploration – development of key technologies
  • Innovation R&D and partnerships, including emerging commercial space and synthetic biology

Synthetic biology is an emerging field in California, particularly in Silicon Valley and San Diego, Worden said. Synthetic biology combines information technology and biology in a way that will help humanity explore and settle space. For example:

  • Mechanical systems that purify air and water are complicated and are prone to break down. These systems could be replaced by biological systems that have been programmed by IT to perform the same tasks.
  • Using synthetic biology systems to extract oxygen and nutrients on the Moon and Mars to sustain human life, grow plants, and support human settlements.
  • Biome improvement: Bio-engineering astronaut’s bodies for long-term missions to asteroids, Mars and the moon.

Worden said the work would build upon NASA’s existing heritage in biology research.  NASA has requested $5 million for synthetic biology work in its FY 2012 budget.

In other NASA Ames news, the space agency’s budget includes a $32.8 million request to renovate Hangar One, an empty former Naval building that once housed zeppelins. Worden said that NASA is exploring using the facility to house airships. NASA Ames has two airship companies on site already, and it has been talking to other companies about using Hanger One.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post said in the second paragraph that the new Emerging Commercial Space Office would “managing NASA’s $30.1 million Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data program.”  Pete Worden was actually referring to working with Google Lunar X Prize competitors.