Private sector has solid position in space business

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A group of advisors and space program experts gathered Tuesday to discuss legislation and policy flowing from the nation’s capital during the Space Symposium’s “A View from Washington” panel at The Broadmoor.

Much of the discussion surrounded the future of commercial space programs, including private-sector satellites and rockets used to transport cargo, as well as space tourism’s surge in popularity and the possibility of it becoming a prominent industry in several states, including Colorado.

The panel was comprised of Richard DalBello, assistant director, Space and Aeronautics Office of Science and Technology Policy, executive office of the president; Tom Hammond, staff director, Majority House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Subcommittee on Space; George C. Nield, associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration; and Ann Zulkosky senior professional staff, Majority Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Subcommittee on Science and Space. It was moderated by Brendan W. Curry, vice president of Washington Operations for the Space Foundation.

Future opportunities Zulkosky, when asked why Congress should continue to be involved in the space industry, quoted the Committee on Rationale and Goals of the U.S. Civil Space Program: “Civil space activities are central to the [research and development] enterprise of the nation, often in a transformational way, and thus presents powerful opportunities to address major national objectives.”

Nield said he was supportive of commercial ventures working in tandem with the government to expand space flight capabilities. “I’m all for including the private sector in national space efforts,” Nield said. “By its very nature… [the private sector] is better positioned to be more innovative, to take more risks and be more in tuned with advanced technologies.”

He also addressed a need for industry standards for commercial space flight.

“Existing regulations cover launches and reentries,” Nield said. “Congress decreed they need to gain more experience before putting more regulations in place.” Nield said a moratorium is in place until 2015 regarding new regulations until more data can be gathered in order to create pertinent policies.

“We need to try and have people talk to one another and take advantage of the 50 years of space flight experience we’ve got,” he said. “We have got to put together a guide of established practices for space flight and safety, share that with the community and get feedback.”

The panel discussed the proliferation of commercial launches over the past two years. In 2012, according to Nield, there were three commercial launches and six times as many last year. He said commercial launches in the U.S. are on pace to beat that number this year. Spaceports growing fast There was also discussion of spaceports, of which there are currently eight in the country.

Nield said several states, including Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Hawaii and Colorado are in discussions with the Federal Aviation Agency regarding bringing spaceports to their states. Spaceports, according to the panel, could provide for a variety of commercial uses, including satellite, payload and tourist launches. An audience member asked the panel if spaceport development is outpacing their need. Nield responded, “Our role is not to decide whether something will make money but rather to evaluate the safety and environmental impacts such a proposal will have.”

He said all operational space ports are different and the market will determine their success. “There are different kinds of operations that might make sense,” he said. “It will be interesting to see which ones prove to be successful and which ones will need to change their business [model] to adapt to the actual market.”

The Federal budget DalBello addressed the federal space exploration budget and the affects of sequestration. “We struggled to fund everything we wanted to do and bring the budgets under control,” he said, adding a bipartisan budget act was passed last year for two years of funding.

That will expire in 2015, and Washington has “not resolved the underlying question of federal spending.” The overall NASA budget for this year, according to DalBello, is $17.5 billion.

Of that, the Obama Administration’s budget request for NASA for the 2014-15 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 includes $848 million for the agency’s “Commercial Crew” initiative, which will allow access to the International Space Station and relieve the nation’s reliance on the Russians.

More than $2 billion was included for research and development of a next-generation deep space exploration vehicle and $700 million for “advanced technologies” such as high-value solar electric propulsion and laser communications. Approximately $5 billion is allotted for solar system exploration, of which $1.8 billion is for earth sciences, including climate research and sustained earth-based observations.

The continued development of James Webb Space Telescope set to launch in 2018, was allotted $645 million.

Defending the planet from near-earth objects will require $40 million of the budget and $7 million will be used to fund the collaboration of federal and private “problem solvers” to support NASA’s mission to capture and redirect an asteroid.

According to DalBello, the government has invested $100 billion on space projects. “I think it’s a balanced budget, I think it’s an exciting budget and we look forward to working with Congress to make it a reality,” he said. Around the bend The panel concluded the discussion with thoughts of the next 12-18 months in space flight and exploration. Nield once again turned to the influence of the private sector on the space flight industry.

“I think the big change in the next 12-18 months is going to be the suborbital [tourism],” he said. “The reason that will be transformational is because it will significantly open up access to space.

Ever since Yuri Gagarin first flew more than 50 years ago, there have been on the order of 550 or so folks who have had the chance to experience space flight.

“Well, Virgin Galactic alone has 700 people on their waitlist to fly and other companies are also signing up customers. What we’ll see is a transition from a handful of highly trained and specially selected government employees go to space to a situation where anyone who can afford to buy a ticket can go. Yes, it’s expensive right now, but I expect the price to come down as we see more competition. … That will make it real and more exciting.”

DalBello added that future generations will be the beneficiaries of today’s dreamers. “I always tell people if fully half of these [concepts] never make it, we will have inspired and allowed a generation to build stuff and do stuff and not just write reports on space. That’s incredibly exciting. There’s a whole generation of space entrepreneurs … trying to make businesses work. It’s an incredible energy unique to the United States.” n CSBJ