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Michael Lopez-Alegria On the Prospects for Commercial Spaceflight, Hurdles to Overcome & NASA’s Recent Budget Proposal

Michael Lopez-Alegria
Michael Lopez-Alegria

ExecutiveGov: How have we gotten to where we are today and what’s the current status of commercial spaceflight?

Michael Lopez-Alegria: Well, I have to go back to the two halves of the industry. In the suborbital commercial space right now, we’re actually fortunate to have a handful of companies, the most notable of them are XCOR Aerospace and Virgin Galactic.

Both companies would like to take space flight participants to the edge of space – to a hundred kilometers altitude and back – in on the order of something from 30 minutes to a couple of hours.

Virgin has done some powered test flights with its rocket-engined space plane. They haven’t gone to the edge of space yet, but it’s a buildup that they’ve begun. XCOR is going to begin flight testing later this year, and I would say that by next year, both companies will be in commercial operations.

On the orbital side right now, the only customer that has identified itself is the government. We, NASA, rely on the Russians to take our astronauts to the International Space Station. We haven’t had a national human launch capability since the retirement of the space shuttle.

spaceNASA set up a program for commercial companies to develop the capability and then to buy services to basically replace what we’re buying from the Russians.

That is obviously dependent on funding. The industry partners do have investment there, but a majority of investment in those programs for development is coming from NASA as they are the only identified customer so far.

If things continue the way they are, NASA’s plan is to have that service available by 2017.

 

ExecutiveGov: If you project forward five – ten years, what’s the best case scenario for suborbital and orbital?

Michael Lopez-Alegria: We’d like to see both of those thriving. That would mean routine access to low Earth orbit, not just for spaceflight participants, i.e. tourists, but also for science and technology experiments and experimenters.

There would be frequent and affordable access to the edge of space, whether that means travelling the upper reaches of the atmosphere or doing some kind of micro‑gravity research. Those flights will experience somewhere between three or four minutes of micro gravity at the peak of their flight paths.

I’d like to see that that is routine by at least two companies. And also to see that not only will we see the commercial transportation to low Earth orbit functioning, but even see commercial destinations, such as laboratories for research, manufacturing centers or destinations for tourists that take advantage of those environments – hotels or things like that.

 

Photo: aerospaceguide.net

ExecutiveGov: What hurdles and challenges are the most important to overcome?

Michael Lopez-Alegria: There’s an inside joke at NASA about the tyranny of the rocket equation. The bottom line is flying to space is still very technically challenging.

The physics involved are intimidating and getting all that energy put into a vehicle and then taking it out when we come back home, in the orbital case anyway, is not a trivial task. So, the challenges are getting the cost down.

But, the way that we think that will develop is that as the number of launches increases, the fixed cost will get spread out over a bigger base, and the overall cost will start to decrease , which will then increase the demand, which, in turn, will increase the number of launches. You can see a virtuous cycle developing where you keep driving the cost down.

Reusability is obviously key to reducing cost as well.  Regulatory issues – in the short term – and government funding of orbital transportation development are areas where CSF and its members can help drive the debate and hopefully, resolve the challenges.

 

NASAbuildingExecutiveGov: What are your thoughts on NASA’s recent budget request?

Michael Lopez-Alegria: All in all, we were fairly pleased with the budget. There is solid  support for the Commercial Crew Programs as well as space technology in general, which, in the last few years, have been funded at levels below the president’s request.

We’d like to see a stronger commitment and increased appropriations.   NASA’s intent is clear in the message that they sent with the submission of the budget, that they favor these important  programs.

There’s also money in the budget for the vehicles that are under development for beyond low Earth orbit exploration.  That is critically important and complements the commercial crew efforts.

The two prongs of this are very complimentary. You  need access to low Earth orbit in the short term, but we are also looking for some kind of beyond LEO exploration.

Getting so much bang for the buck by using commercial providers for low Earth orbit access allows NASA to spend the majority of its development budget on these beyond LEO vehicles. And, of course, maintaining the space station is critically important as well.

It’s important that we educate the public who are stakeholders in this endeavor, but may not realize they are stakeholders, on the promise of commercial space flight.

The idea that we could one day expand space travel to include people like in commercial aviation is really exciting. The Commercial Spaceflight Federation will soon establish a 501(c)(3) which is dedicated to just that: public education and outreach.

It’s a great story that will basically sell itself. Generating excitement around the country for the commercialization of access to space is a really important for us.

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