Space Shuttle in Twilight as New Commercial Era Dawns

Officials from NASA and the four CCDev 2 winners held at press conference at the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday morning to discuss the awards and where the companies are heading with their programs over the next year. The event had a fascinating mood to it as NASA and its partners looked forward while soon-to-be-laid-off workers prepared Endeavour for the penultimate flight of the space shuttle program set for the following day.

Phil McAlister, acting director of NASA Commercial Spaceflight Development, recalled how watching the first glide flight of the space shuttle Enterprise in 1977 had inspired him. The shuttle program has been great, he said, but like all good things, it was coming to an end. The new commercial paradigm — characterized by multiple vehicles, competition and a government-private partnership — will benefit not only the United States but the world, McAlister said. Human spaceflight will become sustainable and robust and not subject to the political winds that frequently buffet national governments. Once that happens, human spaceflight will become economically self sustaining there will be no turning back.

In truth, no on has ever turned their backs on human spaceflight. The Soviet and Russian programs have been consistent, if unspectacular, for 50 years. The U.S. program has been marked by a turning away from moon missions and a six-year gap between the last Apollo flight and the beginning of the shuttle era. Another gap of three to five years will begin once Atlantis touches down in July. The U.S. will continue to send astronauts into orbit aboard Russian spacecraft, an option it did not have during the Cold War era 1970’s.

What this new era will do, in my view, will be to open up space to new national and corporate players who can buy — or lease — their own space programs without having to spend billions of dollars developing new technologies and infrastructure. If successful, this will be the greatest change since the Space Age began in 1957.

Mark Sirangelo, program manager for the Sierra Nevada Corporation, spoke of the debt that his company owes to NASA. Sierra Nevada’s mini-space shuttle, the Dream Chaser, is a direct descendant of an International Space Station lifeboat that the space agency developed and later canceled due to a funding shortfall. Sirangelo also paid tribute to those working on the space shuttle program, whose success and failures have provided valuable lessons for those building the next generation of crewed spacecraft.

Ed Mango, program manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Kennedy Space Center, held up a map showing all the places where work on commercial crew is taking place: California, Nevada, Washington State, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Florida, Virginia and Alabama. What struck me was that many of these states are where NASA’s traditional programs are undertaken. This fact indicates to me that political support for commercial space in some of these states will grow stronger as these efforts grow and prosper.

In the meantime, the transition will be a long and difficult one, with massive layoffs resulting from the end of the space shuttle program and a years-long gap in human spaceflights. Some of the workers, like ex-astronaut Garrett Reisman and SpaceX program manager, are finding jobs with the CCDev winners. Sirangelo and his counterparts at Blue Origin, Rob Meyerson, said they are hiring laid off workers. Boeing Program Manager John Elbon said his company is shifting people over from existing NASA work.

Still, the companies can’t absorb everyone. The projects are smaller and simpler than shuttle, and the organizations must be lean in order to compete. Elbon spoke of Boeing’s motto for its 7-person CST-100 vehicle: safe, affordable, soon. Until they start launching vehicles on a regular basis in three to four years, the demand for workers will stay low. This will mean some tough times for aerospace workers.

Another question hanging over the briefing was: Just how large is the market for commercial human space transportation beyond the needs of NASA? All the company representatives expressed confidence that the market will support multiple providers. Elbon, whose company is partnered with commercial space station builder Bigelow Aerospace, said he had a chance to meet with potential station users during the Farnborough Air Show. Boeing’s vehicle will help make Bigelow’s space stations feasible and allow the United States to get a return on its massive investment in ISS, he said.

So, a new era is dawning in space, one fraught with enormous possibilities but substantial risks for everyone involved. The payoff will come in the middle of the decade when private space vehicles will thunder aloft from Cape Canaveral carrying astronauts into orbit once again. NASA will be a client, not the operator of these new vehicles.

In the meantime, there is much work to be done. The four CCDev 2 agreements run through May 2012, a 13-month period in which all four winners must meet tight milestones in order to get paid and prove they are worthy of funding in the next round. NASA will likely not have funding to continue supporting all of these efforts, meaning that both the space agencies and some of the companies will have some tough decisions to make. The company representatives said they would continue with their projects even without further funding. That, of course, remains to be seen.