This letter was originally published in Space News.
On behalf of myself and all of us at Bigelow Aerospace let me first congratulate you on becoming NASA administrator. I’m sure the joy you must feel in being entrusted with leading such an extraordinary organization is only rivaled by the difficulty of the decisions you are now facing.
We appreciated the fact that you and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver took the time to meet with commercial
space executives and, as we expressed during that meeting, Bigelow Aerospace remains a strong supporter of commercial crew transportation. However, in that discussion last month, and in subsequent public appearances, you have consistently voiced a concern and a question. Specifically, you have often commented on the importance of commercial space transportation providers proving themselves via cargo delivery, and have asked the question what is the definition of “commercial space.” I hope we can help you to address both of these issues, and I will begin with cargo delivery.
Your request that commercial providers should prove themselves via cargo delivery is easily answered since it has already occurred. As a matter of fact, mere hours after the commercial space meeting you convened in delivering a communications satellite. Many of the misconceptions surrounding “commercial” space transportation spring from the fact that the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 are being left out of the discussion. As you’re probably aware, Bigelow Aerospace has invested a great deal of time and money examining the viability of the Atlas 5 as a commercial crew carrier, and these analyses have made us a strong supporter of the system. The reason we are so enthusiastic about the Atlas 5 is largely because it addresses the very concern that you’re voicing, the Atlas 5 rocket has time and time again proven itself capable of reliably launching high-value cargo. As a matter of fact, the Atlas 5 is unquestionably one of the most reliable and safest space launch systems in operation today. The Atlas family has had many dozens of consecutive successful launches, an unparalleled track record, making it the perfect choice for human- rating, since, ultimately, a great deal of “human-rating” is providing proven flight heritage.
This is not to say that we don’t have great hope for and belief in Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and the Falcon 9. We believe that SpaceX has the potential to revolutionize the launch market. However, when the commercial crew transportation debate is artificially limited to only the two current participants of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, and the Atlas 5 is ignored, as it was during the congressional hearing in the House several weeks ago, this leads to a flawed discussion and problematic conclusions. We don’t know if the House authorizers avoided talking about the Atlas due to bias, ignorance or a combination of both, but we have faith that you and President Barack Obama’s White House are not suffering from a similarly limited vision.
Therefore, to answer your concern, a commercial crew rocket has not only proven itself capable of delivering cargo worth billions of dollars, but, in the form of the Atlas, has been doing so for decades.
Next, you ask a much more difficult question, what is “commercial space.” There can be many responses to this query, and, as you have pointed out, if you line up three entrepreneurs they will likely give you a half dozen answers. However, we believe there are several general principles that separate “commercial space” from traditional programs. First, “commercial” initiatives are allowed to fail. Per the COTS structure, if a commercial project’s budget skyrockets, or if key technical milestones are abrogated, the initiative is shut down (this is why Kistler’s removal from the COTS program was actually a triumph in good government contracting). Also integral to this concept is the requirement of firm, fixed pricing. Again, the COTS program serves as an excellent example of this strategy, since it utilizes a firm, fixed amount of government funding tied to achieving specific milestones. In the end, “commercial” space is less about who is doing the work than the means of procurement. When NASA needs to send some international space station hardware or documents quickly overseas, it doesn’t build a boat, you use Federal Express or some other commercial carrier. NASA simply buys a service, at a fixed price, and steps away. By funding a commercial crew program that follows this COTS model, you can make the commercial purchase of space transportation a reality, freeing NASA forever from the shackles of low Earth orbit (LEO).
Additionally, it’s just as important to ask what commercial space isn’t, because there are many misconceptions there as well. Commercial does not inherently equal small or unproven, as demonstrated consistently by the Atlas and Delta rockets. Moreover, we recently teamed with Boeing, and together submitted a proposal for the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. Some have tried to marginalize commercial crew as a risky strategy due to the lack of performance and experience of the companies involved. Boeing submitting a CCDev proposal and its desire to become a leader in the commercial space field flies in the face of such criticism. Arguably, no one has more experience in human spaceflight than Boeing, and to ignore their powerful entrance into the commercial crew transportation arena is to do a great disservice to the field itself and the current debate.
Both large, experienced companies like Boeing, and new entrepreneurial firms like Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceX, believe in the value of commercial crew. The Atlas 5 has already proven itself more than capable of delivering high-value cargo, and, if a commercial crew program is initiated, the Atlas will readily prove itself capable of delivering crew to LEO. Herein lies the answer to your human spaceflight dilemma. A commercial crew program can easily return Americans to space in a mere four years for the amount of funding recommended by the Augustine Committee.
America has already abdicated its leadership in commercial space launch, with nearly all such activities being conducted by Russian, European, Indian or Chinese entities. Our commercial satellite manufacturing base has also steadily been slipping away, and the decisions you make in the near future will determine if commercial crew transportation becomes yet another domestic industry whose jobs and capabilities are permanently shipped overseas.
As you are well aware, future U.S. access to space will soon be entirely dependent on Russia. The Russians are excellent capitalists, and you should expect prices to rise above the already stunning $51 million per seat that NASA is currently paying during every subsequent Soyuz contract negotiation. A robust commercial crew program represents this nation’s only hope of reversing this deplorable situation and reviving America’s human spaceflight capabilities. If you choose this path, it will free NASA both in terms of substance and financing to look beyond LEO, leaving the agency to again become a trailblazer to the stars.
Robert T. Bigelow is the founder of Bigelow Aerospace.