NASA COTS program paying off? Summary of Aviation Week article

I saw this interesting analysis of the commercial space launch industry in Aviation Week:  This is a 4-page article that’s definitely worth reading, esp. if you’re interested in the commercial space ventures and why the government should continue to support commercial space ventures through NASA’s COTS program.  However, here’s the down-low:

--NASA’s spent about $925 million dollars in seed money to commercial space ventures.  This has helped private space companies (like SpaceX, which is closest to its goal) to develop.

--As commercial companies become successful, they will drive down the cost of launches across the board as other companies work to keep their part of the market share.

--Big government contractors will also have to innovate in order to keep up.

--One example of innovation is the use of less expensive but more sophisticated safety systems, like escape systems.  These will rely more heavily on computer decisions to abort because the decision needs to be made so quickly to save the crew.

--The Atlas V is still a popular choice for launch vehicles because it’s reliable, it does the job, and it’s available.  Boeing and United Launch Alliance are using the Atlas V.  Since the Atlas is already used by the Air Force, using it for manned space will also mean more being produced, which lowers costs.

--SpaceX, of course, built its own rocket, the Falcon 9 itself, starting out with the intention of making it man-rated according to the Space Act Agreement, but it needs an upgrade to meet the Federal Acquisition Requirements for man-rating .  (It doesn’t say why the Space Act  requirements and FAR are not the same.  May I suggest government bureaucracy?)

--NASA has funded several programs for its “base period;” after which, it has an optional period where it will evaluate the competitors and decide who it wants to work with in the longer run.  Those will be the ones they work with fully man-certifying the launch vehicles.

--Just an aside, but Sierra Nevada is being bankrolled by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.  It’s interesting to me how many Internet business billionaires are funding commercial space.  Is it the geek factor?  If so, go, geek factor!

--Even if NASA were to only select one contractor for its manned space missions, it still wins because companies will have developed rockets that can carry unmanned capsules or launch other things into space.

--NASA asked for $830 million to invest in commercial crew launch.  Despite Obama’s promise to support commercial space, it was cut to $406 million, less than half of what they asked for and half of what they used the year before.  That’s going to delay commercial manned flights to the ISS by at least a year.  (During which time, we will continue to fund Russia’s space program.

--However, NASA isn’t the only potential customer for manned spaceflights.  Bigelow is continuing to perfect its inflatable space habitats, which could be used for tourism, science & industry, and other nations that don’t have enough resources of “lack the wherewithal to develop their own space laboratories.”  Sierra Nevada, meanwhile, is working on a shuttle-type system with the eye on satellite-servicing.

Although Aviation Week says the NASA investment will “pay off as soon as” April, they were not speaking financially.  Rather, they see the program as having sparked a space-launch market that didn’t exist before (that of manned space launch.)  Time will tell if this market can bear the industry being built.  Most likely, we will see companies rise and fall, just like in any industry, as new technology and new approaches (not to mention marketing) are tried.  It will also depend on whether there are customers enough for this market.  It may be a “cottage industry” for awhile, until we find a way to make it truly profitable.

Just a note:  SpaceX has delayed its launch until early May.  They have to get this one right, so they're being extra-careful.

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