Private Firms Flock To Space Exploration

Decline in federal funding for US space program prompts commercial companies to get involved in space exploration research.

Elena Malykhina, Technology Journalist

May 19, 2014

4 Min Read

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With a steady decline in federal funding for NASA programs, commercial companies are looking to fill a void through privately funded space exploration. Whether it's sending humans to Mars or using technologies to mine extraterrestrial minerals for medicinal purposes, the US space program is going through a major transformation.

On May 14, a panel of experts from the private sector convened at the Brookings Institution in Washington to discuss how the economy is moving toward commercial companies getting involved in space. "This is no longer your grandfather's space program," Darrell West, Brookings Institution's VP and director of governance studies, said at the start of the panel discussion.

Commercial firms are increasingly launching satellites, supplying the International Space Station (ISS) with cargo, and even developing options for space tourism in the near future. While in the past most US manned and unmanned missions were funded by the federal government, space economy is moving toward entrepreneurs and commercial companies getting involved. John Roth, VP of business development for Sierra Nevada Corporation's space systems, called this shift "old space versus new space."

[NASA reveals its latest prototype of the "Z" series spacesuit, designed for humans to walk on Mars by the 2030s. See NASA's Next Spacesuit: Mars Fashion.]

"There's a proliferation of companies doing what NASA and the [Defense Department] have no interest in doing, such as taking tourists up to space. There's a huge thrust of economic activity going on in space," said Roth.

Sierra Nevada has a partnership with NASA to fly its Dream Chaser spacecraft into orbit from Florida's Space Coast in November 2016. Dream Chaser is capable of carrying crew and cargo, as well as performing service and science in low-Earth orbit. Earlier this year, the company announced additional plans to include the purchase of an Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance for the launch, sharing the Operations and Checkout development and testing facility with Lockheed Martin Space Systems, and establishing an operation center at the Kennedy Space Center.

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SpaceX is another private firm that holds a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. SpaceX developed a rocket and capsule to deliver supplies to the ISS, as part of NASA's Commercial Resupply Services program. Adam Harris, VP of government sales at SpaceX, said NASA sets an example for other government agencies with its fixed price contract model. "Companies sign up for a price they won't go over and they get the job done," Harris said.

NASA's vision going forward is to send astronauts to space from US soil through its Commercial Crew Program. "We pay the Russians quite a bit of money to do that right now -- over $70 million per seat. We think there's an American way to take astronauts up to space," said Harris. Under a $440 million agreement with NASA, SpaceX is modifying its Dragon spacecraft to make it crew-ready. SpaceX is also interested in providing space tourism in the near future -- along with companies like Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures, Boeing, Bigelow Aerospace, and Blue Origins.

During the Brookings Institution event, panelists discussed policy proposals that could strengthen the US space program. Additionally, they reviewed some "moonshot policies" or long-shot missions for NASA to consider in the coming years.

One policy looks at the government's support of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs to attract the nation's stop students. The aeronautics industry is competing with other high tech firms to hire talented people, the experts said.

Another policy deals with improved communication between NASA and the DoD, such as the sharing of data for research purposes. Experts also recommended coming up with more sophisticated earth observation from space. They stressed the need for technology that monitors Earth in detail and particularly investments in next-generation satellites.

The moonshot policies include exploring how extraterrestrial minerals could be used to cure diseases, a big opportunity for pharmaceutical companies, and gathering more information about the existence of life outside the solar system. NASA plans to send its next rover to Mars in 2020, but a manned mission could provide further insight, according to the experts.

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About the Author(s)

Elena Malykhina

Technology Journalist

Elena Malykhina began her career at The Wall Street Journal, and her writing has appeared in various news media outlets, including Scientific American, Newsday, and the Associated Press. For several years, she was the online editor at Brandweek and later Adweek, where she followed the world of advertising. Having earned the nickname of "gadget girl," she is excited to be writing about technology again for InformationWeek, where she worked in the past as an associate editor covering the mobile and wireless space. She now writes about the federal government and NASA’s space missions on occasion.

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