Pirates, Partnerships & Profits: Key Take-Aways from the 2015 AIAA Space Conference
Space Pirates – Blissful Ignorance
Bob Vargo, assistant director in the engineering and science directorate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, highlighted the extent to which cyber security for space systems remains an unsolved problem, describing “blissful ignorance” within the space community despite successful cyber-attacks on Landsat, Terra and other spacecraft.
Challenges remain due to the tens of millions of lines of legacy code that was often written decades ago or because of the sprawling number of organizations that work on space projects, according to Vargo. Universities, ground stations, contractors and government agencies working with spacecraft all utilize their own computer networks and devices that must be secured.
The Public-Private Partnership Model
“The future of commercial space can be bright if the balance [between government and the private sector] plays out.” Panelists Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA Johnson Space Center; Steven Lindsey, Sierra Nevada Corp.; George C. Nield, FAA; George Sowers, United Launch Alliance, agreed.
- Balanced cooperation: The two parties must collaborate to find creative ways to contribute to humanity – while making a profit, but not being overcome by the search for profit to the point where it destroys the real mission.
- NASA’s COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program, a successful collaboration: Pointed out by Lindenmoyer, in this model of public-private partnership, both entities play a key role in driving exploration forward. Lindenmoyer highlighted that the initial government investment in the COTS program was $700 million, but that COTS has since generated over $3.5 billion in revenue.
The Business of Space
“The private sector holds onto uncertainty about the business of space, even if the overall size of the space products and services market has quadrupled over the last 15 years.” – Carissa Christensen, The Tauri Group.
- Don’t discount the government: Even in a world where private space ventures are consistently driving higher business returns, government space programs will remain important, according to George Sowers, United Launch Alliance. The lengthy duration and high costs of missions means that government programs continue to handle the overwhelming majority of long-range exploration and national security missions.
- Healthy competition: As tumultuous as the market might be (including volatile government budgets, technical risks and changes in the industrial base), companies don’t seem to be dissuaded from joining the battle. “We now see something like one company a month arising (instead of once a year),” reported Christensen.
- Finding the profit: George Nield, FAA, listed areas where private companies can hope to profit from their activities:
– launching satellites
– satellite serving
– contracting for commercial crew placements
– suborbital space tourism
– extraction of minerals and other materials from asteroids.
The Potential for Satellite Servicing
1,040 legacy satellites are currently in orbit – there is great potential in the satellite servicing market. While not all are great candidates for servicing, a large portion of them are. Spacecraft with the capability of rendezvousing and docking with other satellites could deliver enormous savings:
– Satellite inspection
– Supporting a spacecraft launched into the wrong orbit
– Active servicing tasks such as refueling or hardware replacement
The Launch Market
- Commercial Crew: Once a purely government endeavor, NASA has struck a chord in the industry with its Commercial Crew program in which Boeing and SpaceX are developing crew capsules with a mix of government and private funds.
- United Launch Alliance (ULA): In the launch market, Dan Collins, chief operating officer of ULA, said his company is reacting to the new competition for national security launches by innovating to deliver more mass to space through a smaller infrastructure, safely. ULA’s planned new rocket, Vulcan, has been optimized to service as many markets as possible to maximize potential revenues and will use a minimal number of launch pads to reduce costs.
- Reusability: A bright future is being talked up by executives of some the world’s leading space launch vehicle companies who are focusing on reusability as a key area of innovation in the coming decade. Reusability (“rapid reuse capability”) is a focus for both SpaceX and ULA. SpaceX is currently upgrading the Falcon 9, which will be slightly longer, with a 33% increase in performance. Lee Rosen, SpaceX’s vice president of mission and launch operations, said SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is about to become “the world’s most powerful rocket” since the Saturn V Moon rocket, with nearly 4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, about equal to 15 Boeing 747 jumbo jets.
“With Mars being the key destination for exploration, establishing sustainable funding mechanisms that keep pace with the pressure of inflation, and learning how to better tell the industry’s story to decision-makers, are keys to ensuring progress in future missions.”
NASA has worked out a human Mars exploration plan, fitting within the current budget:
– Crewed mission to a Martian moon around 2032,
– Short duration stay on Mars surface in mid to late 2030s, and
– Long duration stay/permanent presence on Mars surface around 2040.
– All missions would take advantage of robotic cargo missions sent in advance for key elements (e.g., return stages).
Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said “we won’t get to Mars, or other destinations, without reusable systems”, otherwise “it’s a one way trip.”
Commercial Space Stations
“The big elephant in the room is to figure out what happens to the ISS in the middle of the next decade,” said Sam Scimemi, director of the ISS, emphasizing the need to broaden the appeal of the ISS platform beyond government & NASA use.
Panelists suggest extracting maximum commercial value out of the ISS, providing 50% of all station resources to private efforts (via CASIS). For this, ISS will probably be extended to 2024 and maybe 2028, but NASA cannot afford to pay operating and maintenance costs for ISS while also exploring deep space.
“Future success in space will take a collective effort by government, industry and the public to push the country’s exploration goals forward,” – AIAA panelists.
Sources: AIAA Space Conference 2015 news and edited notes from various participants.