Space for hire

8 min read

NASA, struggling for funds, is changing tack by forming innovative partnerships with big hitters outside the space community, adding dynamism to its stodgy image. Niall Firth reports

Harangued by the US media as being a wasteful and bloated organisation, NASA is criticised for being weighed down by its own bureaucracy.

This might seem unfair considering its many successes over the years but despite its $17bn (£8.5bn) budget NASA has recently been forced to close programmes such as its Advanced Concepts team and a number of other science projects, including the Lunar Robotic Precursor Programme to fund its space flight priorities.

Meanwhile, its smaller commercial rivals such as Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are pressing ahead with plans for private space flight on comparatively tiny budgets. Over the past two years these meaner, leaner and more dynamic space companies, and SpaceDev and Blue Origin, have been developing technology and spacecraft in half the time and for many fewer dollars than NASA’s.

Perhaps realising it is missing out on so much innovation, NASA has changed tack over the past 18 months. It is increasingly keen to team up with other commercial big-hitters in the industry and build non-traditional alliances with companies from outside the space community. This new way of working is part of its increasing desire to ‘democratise’ space.

It is a direct result of the US’s Vision of Space Exploration — an ambitious long-term document that details its highly-ambitious plans in space over the next 20 years.

Originally announced by George Bush at NASA headquarters in 2004, it covers everything from the replacement for the Shuttle to robotic interplanetary missions and includes the space agency’s plans for returning to the Moon by 2020. Its implementation has already begun but for NASA, the future of space exploration is not something it can do alone — it will need help.

Pete Worden, director of NASA’s AMES Research Centre, is one of the key people in charge of developing these partnerships.

‘As a species we are now moving out to expand across the solar system,’ said Worden. ‘To do that we need more than just rockets and space missions. One of the primary precepts of this vision is to expand private sector opportunities and involve them — something that is just as important as rockets.’

There are two key factors in this new policy. As well as further developing its relationships with traditional aerospace firms, NASA is also looking to team up with a number of companies that operate in areas such as IT, biotechnology and nanotechnology as well as a selection of other interesting non-traditional firms.

‘The key thing is really to look at making partnerships with people who operate in areas that are not typical NASA areas,’ said Worden.

NASA’s alliance with Google, signed in late 2005, is the most mature of these. Its existence owes as much to geography as to executive decision-making, something that characterises a number of the agency’s recent partnerships. Nestled in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, AMES Research Centre is surrounded by the brightest and best in technical innovation, a fact that NASA has finally decided to exploit.

In a spirit of good neighbourliness, NASA has agreed to lease Google about one million sq ft of its extensive land, which Google plans to move into by 2009. However, the cornerstone of their partnership is the way they will work together to produce new image applications for the public.

Worden was unable to go into specifics on the deal but did say NASA is looking to use Google’s ‘Google Earth’ platform and combine it with the huge amounts of climate change data such as sea temperatures and atmospheric measurements that NASA has compiled over the years.

‘The idea is that using Google’s ability to display huge datasets will help provide the kind of tool that scientists can use, as well as the general public, to view climate change data over the past 10 years, for example,’ he said.

‘Google is in the business of organising and presenting data, and NASA has a lot . It’s a partnership that is really quite logical.’

The European Space Agency (ESA) has already been exploring this idea. Since last summer, some of ESA’s climate change data has been available to English-speaking users of Google Earth and an ESA spokesman said the idea would be developed further over the next year or two.

Another development is for NASA and Google to collaborate on bringing NASA’s data on Mars to life through a similar, Google-developed platform. The two have outlined preliminary plans for co-operation on a variety of other areas, including large-scale data management and massively distributed super-computing.

The organisations are also said to be working on a disaster-response project that will place real-time disaster data on Google Earth. That could include the plume of a wild fire, the condition of a damaged bridge, or even the position of monitoring aircraft. Reports have hinted that Google might be involved in developing its own satellite missions in this area in the future.

Google has also offered NASA several hundred million dollars to fund research by NASA’s scientists. Already the agency’s researchers have put forward 130 proposals for funding consideration.

One of the unique benefits of being a Google employee is the firm’s famous promise that employees can use 20 per cent of their time to work on their own projects. For Google one of the benefits of working with NASA is the agency’s pull as an exciting recruitment tool. Many of its young employees are interested in working on space-based projects while, conversely, Google has already hired some ex-NASA members of staff.

The benefits for NASA extend beyond pure technology development. While the organisation is criticised for its inflexibility and wastefulness, the partnership will give the agency the chance to learn how to operate more like a business. Google is a flexible, innovative organisation — not something that NASA has been particularly famed for in the past, but that it wants to learn, and quickly.

‘It has brought a lot of excitement to both sides,’ said Worden. ‘And we are now making contact with a whole range of non-traditional companies.’

One of the biggest firms from outside the traditional space sphere that is looking to develop a partnership with NASA is IT firm Cisco, also based in Silicon Valley.

Worden said the two are seeking to develop a space-based internet system. It is still in its initial design stages but Cisco’s internet expertise could be vital in developing a technology that would allow astronauts — and eventually even settlers on the Moon and other planets in our solar system — to remain connected by some form of space-wide communications system.

NASA has also been hosting regular meetings of its Collaborative Space Exploration Laboratory (CoLab), a means by which different companies from the technology and entrepreneurial sector can meet and work out ways in which they can get involved in the space programme.

While CoLab inhabits a physical space in downtown San Francisco, NASA has also set up a means of collaborating on the interactive gaming world ‘Second Life’, complete with interactive content.

One of its early goals is to develop Cosmoscode — a set of free, open-source space software that other companies can use to get involved in the testing and development of NASA’s projects.

Intriguingly, the latest CoLab meeting in California was sponsored by Hollywood legend George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) — the firm behind Hollywood special effects-based blockbusters such as the latest Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean.

While there are no concrete plans for NASA and ILM to collaborate yet, it shows the lengths to which NASA is prepared to go as part of its new open approach to partnerships. A NASA spokesman said a possible collaboration could use ILM’s animation expertise to better articulate its Vision for Space Exploration to the public.

The knowledge transfer would not be one-way only, added the spokesman. ‘When ILM is involved in creating special effects for space-related films, such as Star Wars and Star Trek, ILM might benefit from collaborating with NASA astrophysicists and other experts to increase the realism of the effects. After all, more people get a sense of what space is like from Hollywood than Houston these days,’ he said.

In a more straightforward partnership, NASA has also signed a basic agreement with fledgling space tourism company Virgin Galactic to share facilities and join forces in space technology development.

According to George Whittingill, Virgin Galactic’s chief technical officer, its recently-signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with NASA signals a new approach in the way in which NASA deals with other companies.

‘NASA has always signed agreements with smaller firms who lease its facilities or collaborate on certain projects,’ he said. ‘But I think what has really changed here is that the space agency is looking to work with companies who really have the financial muscle to make things happen quickly.’

He said Virgin will also gain from the relationship as it quickly assimilates much of NASA’s hard-won expertise and technical know-how in sending people into space.

Other collaborations are no doubt afoot, as NASA chiefs cotton on to the fact that their venerable agency could learn from these non-traditional partners.

Car manufacturer Subaru and military technology firm General Dynamics have both signed MOUs with NASA to develop new multi-mission telescopes that use lightweight silicon carbide mirrors.

NASA is also keen to invest as much as possible in bio- and nanotechnologies as part of its Vision for Space Exploration and has been developing its partnerships with academia in this area. A bio and nanotechnology R&D institute to be run in tandem with the University of California at NASA’s AMES Research Centre has just been set up.

Worden said there are a number of innovative start-ups in these areas — particularly around San Francisco Bay — that NASA hopes to forge new links with in the near future.

‘The key here is that we are embarking on sustained exploration of the solar system. It’s more than science,’ he said. ‘In the old days it used to be called “flight and footprints” but now we are working on something that will be far longer-lasting. To do that it has to go beyond the government efforts and into the commercial and private sectors. We’ll need a lot of different inputs.’

He added: ‘We think space offers a lot of different opportunities and from the very beginning we want to get the people who are doing the cutting-edge technologies involved as soon as possible.’



A key illustration of NASA’s new willingness to embrace the commercial side of space is Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems (COTS).

Aware of the innovation and drive behind many so-called ‘alt-space’ (alternative space) firms, NASA has finally decided to use this era of commercial space competition by setting up Space Act Agreements with two of its leading companies.

Late last year it made $500m (£250m) available for two teams from ‘alt-space’ firms SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler to develop a commercial spacecraft capable of re-supplying the International Space Station with crew and cargo.

‘Our primary intent is that some time in the next decade, although the government will keep some capability of supplying the ISS, at least some of that capability will be taken over by commercial enterprise,’ said a NASA spokesman.

Set up by entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2002 using the fortune he made selling his company PayPal to eBay that year, SpaceX’s vision for the COTS spacecraft is known as Dragon. The firm has proposed several configurations of the craft to NASA to meet the need to deliver pressurised and unpressurised cargo loads to the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX has also suggested a crewed version capable of carrying up to seven astronauts to and from the station.

While Dragon’s exact configuration has remained a closely guarded secret, SpaceX has been working on the design since 2004. Described as a ‘mix between Apollo and Soyuz’ the 3.6m-long finished vehicle will be slightly smaller than NASA’s own Orion vehicle (formerly the CEV) and would couple with the ISS using the space station’s robotic arm. In theory the Dragon would manoeuvre itself within reach of the arm using LIDAR.

Rocketplane Kistler’s K-1 vehicle is said to be extremely simple in design with highly reliable, fault-tolerant, components that have a lifetime of more than 100 space flights, the firm claims. It will fly burning kerosene fuel, rather than the usual liquid hydrogen, to simplify safety procedures at its spaceport in Woomera, Australia.

It is also fitted with an advanced Integrated Vehicle Health Management System so diagnostics can be run on its components soon after landing, allowing it to be quickly readied for another flight.

The first prototype versions of both SpaceX’s spacecraft and Rocketplane Kistler’s K-1 vehicle are due to be completed by 2009.