NASA Seeks Commercial-Sector Tech for Human Missions
Robonaut 2, the current generation of NASA's humanoid robot, is a key piece of the agency's strategy for space exploration, and an example of its technology-platform road map for mobility systems and mechatronics. It will be demonstrated at the Design & Manufacturing Texas show by Jacobs Engineering, NASA's partner in getting technologies and materials human-rated for space. (Source: NASA)
The fact is that most NASA projects have been built by commercial firms for most of the life of the program. I worked for a couple. The issue is the specs and the testing required. This is a tough problem for manned space. Frankly, there are lots of people who would take more risks to be part of the space program. These include the military, and especially test, pilots that take far more risks in aviation systems, and have a much higher fatality rate. Although there are people willing to take the personal risk, it is the agency that would have trouble with that. It is public attitudes that would be at risk. In all areas of human exploration before the space program people tried, and died, with a lot less effect on the effort than we see today. Think of all the people who ventured out in ships in the 15th century. Think of all the early avaition pioneers. I am not advocating the we lose more people, but just pointing out that there are restrictions that are new in the field of exploration.
I was involved in that move to COTS in the military arena. It involved a lot of planning and integration work, but it cut costs by a factor of five to ten. When the 10th Mountain Dvivsion started carrying Macs (remember the early ones that were one unit) into exercvises so that they could fax and receive orders and data, the brass had to pay attention. Very quickly ruggedized laptops were specificed and provided at a lower cost. A program that was to cover from Corps to Battalion was immediatly driven down to the platoon level. On the Shuttle one often saw the crew floating around with laptops. The Shutttle computers were never updated. The reason, testing. The cost of that was prohibitive. "New" technologies made a network of PCs easy, and since it was not involved with a crew safety requirement, I am sure it was dramatically less expensive.
I have believed for some time that NASA's role should shift. With the end of the Cold War, we have really needed less and less government-sponsored space travel, and more private investment. After the Challenger accident, the US Space program was paralyzed for nearly ten years. We need to move NASA into more of an FAA-type role. Don't get me wrong, I always wanted to be an astronaut and land on Mars, but with the pace that space travel has been crawling along during my entire lifetime, it doesn't look that possible for a government space program. NASA can still design equipment, and foster some safety regulations, but I say that the role of launching satellites needs to be done by the companies that want them put into orbit. If AT&T had to pay to launch its own satellites, and had to send its own repair crew to fix them, they would design and build better satellites that did not need repaired, and would stay in orbit longer. The same goes for television providers, and so on. Sure, there will still be call for government-sponsored satellite launches, like military satellites launched by the Air Force, and weather satellites launched by NOAA, but private companies should be able to launch their own satellites, and to repair them.
NASA has some really big plans, and they have some really great designs, but those plans and designs will never be implemented with taxpayer money. I remember seeing a movie called 'The Mouse that Roared' when I was much younger, about a country that had no real space program, no budget, and no real scientists, entering into the space race with the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. While the US and USSR both had rockets and launched their astronauts into orbit in bulky, heavy space suits, the third country launched its astronauts with a hot air balloon. It was ridiculous and comical to think that that would work. Then I saw a program on BBCAmerica called "James May's Man Lab" where he jokingly suggested Britain enter the space race by launching cremated animals into space on weather balloons. Of course, the balloons got to sub-orbital altitude before bursting, but it got me thinking about my high school physics. The escape velocity of any planet's gravitational field is directly related to the altitude above the planet's surface that the object trying to escape its gravity begins its ascent. So, therefore, if we launched a big enough balloon to get the rocket high enough off the ground before launching the rocket, shouldn't it need less fuel to actually achieve orbit? And of course NASA has several projects with that same goal in mind, even adding microwave emitters inside the balloons to heat the helium inside the balloon to allow it to rise even faster, and maybe using common air inside a mylar balloon and having the microwaves bounce around the inside of the balloon to warm it. Yes, NASA has some great ideas, and while the public imagination is no longer captured by space travel, much of that has to do with the fact that for the past thirty or forty years we have limited ourselves to earth's orbit. NASA has not shown the public anything to capture its imagination. Maybe letting people mount their own missions to the Moon or Mars would pave the way for NASA to be more of an advisor on space travel than a monopolist.
Lou, thanks for your comments. It's certainly true that commercial sector firms have built much of NASA technology to date. What's different here is the idea of now building lots of one type of system and using COTS-like modular design and technology, versus building only 1, 3 or 5 of an entirely custom-built system as in the past. COTS has drastically reduced costs in the military. It makes me wonder why it took NASA so long to decide to go a similar path. One possible answer might be the state of available commercial technology wasn't ready yet. Any one have any ideas?
I think, also, the US-Government "owned" the space program, and relinquishing control is always an emotional struggle. NASA was the USA's baby, and only had to beat-down one troublesome competitor, the USSR. Now, Outer-Space in general, is much more international.
I'm outside of my area of expertise, but my perception as a child of the space-age was that the Space Program – the Right Stuff – was a matter of National Pride fueled by patriotism. Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade was bigger than party lines, and the initiative was epidemic with virtually everyone's support.
On the contrary, the Military, while also a matter of patriotism and pride, was perceived differently. Vietnam and Korea were unpopular and caused dissent. Even though behind the scenes, the Military was directly linked to the Space Program, it managed to maintain an image of non-involvement with NASA, in the public's eye. And because the Military run by a consistent group of officers that didn't change every four years with the White-House, they had the consistency of purpose to self-manage, make logical business choices, and pursue COTS initiatives.
NASA, meanwhile, was also self-managed, but much more vulnerable to the whims of the current Administration than was the Military.
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