The Race to Commercialize Space Travel – a New Approach

Post by Jim Lee

 
shuttle launch. shuttle liftoff. rocket launches into space.-slight graininess, best at smaller sizes

Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle… all were US manned space programs from 1961 through 2011.  Why is it so different now with SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corp., Virgin Galactic, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin competing to put man in space?  Why is a commercial crew program such a big deal?  I asked these questions at the Collaboration on Quality in the Space and Defense Industries conference and got a variety of opinions about the collaboration between government and these industries. Here’s my takeaway from the conference.

  • NASA wanted to take their 50 years of manned space flight experience with Mission Assurance and partner with the innovative aerospace industry to come up with cutting edge solutions to take astronauts into space.  This included design, development, manufacturing, and operation in rapid succession that is more efficient and effective than the US government could do on their own.
  • All of these industry players are either private companies or large corporations, not the US government.
  • NASA wants to be a customer for these services, but doesn’t want to be the only customer.  If an interested company didn’t have other customers and uses for the technology and solutions, then NASA wasn’t interested in partnering with them.
  • You might have to take 2 steps backward to take 10 steps forward for continual improvement.  NASA learned that they had to let go of some of their oversight and restrictions, and let these other companies take responsibility for what happens in their buildings.  NASA’s Kennedy Space Center just created new values of being helpful, building relationships, and knowing what matters.  Part of this speaks to their focus on the safety of the astronauts and total mission assurance, and leaving the innovation companies at KSC to take their own responsibility for safety, quality and internal mission assurance. NASA wouldn’t get involved unless one of these tenants would affect stakeholders outside their buildings.  This is a big change in philosophy and culture.
  • Taking 2 steps backward to take 10 steps forward cannot include loss of life.
  • NASA has to rely on these new companies that have never put a human in space.  There is lost organizational knowledge from NASA that has to be relearned with these new technologies and innovations.
  • Where it doesn’t matter, get out of the way and let capitalism and entrepreneurs provide innovations never imagined.  If you’ve never seen the SpaceX first stage rockets return to earth and land, it’s like throwing a pencil and it landing upright on its eraser.  That’s just one example of the many innovations.
  • I also asked about Russia’s and China’s manned space programs, both of which are fully government funded. Is this possibly our opportunity to leave them in the dust by taking an approach to draw funds from a broader pool, and leap past current technology using more government/corporate resources?
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