NASA may partner with more private companies on launches, rely on heavy lifters from SpaceX, Blue Or

Extreme cj Times

Over the last few years, NASA has been one of SpaceX’s biggest supporters and funders. Without the organization’s support, SpaceX would never have made it as far as it has. But the relationship between NASA and companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin has been complicated by their divergent goals and timelines for human spaceflight. NASA has its own heavy booster that it’s bringing up, the Space Launch System, and hasn’t necessarily been pleased at the idea of SpaceX or anyone else muscling in on its turf.

At least, that’s been the status quo up until a recent presentation by NASA’s head of human spaceflight, William Gerstenmaier. He showed slides with a number of currently operational rockets, rockets expected to be operational in the near-term, and proposed future designs from a number of companies, Ars Technica reports. He then remarked: “My point of this chart is this is a great way to be, and I’m not picking any one of these, I love every one of these rockets. We will figure out some way to use some subset of these as they mature through the industry and come out the other side.”

Gerstenmaier’s remarks are a surprising follow-up to statements made by the former administrator, Charles Bolden, who saw companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin as competitors to the Space Launch System NASA is building. The SLS has been controversial partially due to its size and cost — while it will have the heaviest throw weight of any rocket expected to be operational in the next decade, Congress hasn’t approved sufficient funds for NASA to use it often or for much. As Gerstenmaier notes, launching the SLS once per year isn’t compelling for manned space exploration. It also creates high maintenance costs for a rocket that only occasionally makes it into orbit.

SLS 2

The SLS is supposed to scale up over time, eventually fielding designs that can lift more than even the Saturn V

At the same time, however, relying on private industry has scarcely been a smooth road thus far. SpaceX has lost two high-profile rockets and NASA continues to have concerns about the company’s fueling practices and how they might impact the crew of the capsule in an emergency (SpaceX insists that its abort mechanisms would have saved a crew in the company’s most recent failure). And there’s the added question of whether Congress will approve closer ties between NASA and its potential private partners. The same bill that commissioned NASA to build the SLS also contained highly specific text regarding the technology that platform was to be based on and the companies that were to build it. Congress has often been derided for using these kinds of requirements to bring jobs to favored districts (the SLS is also known as the Senate Launch System, after all).

As things stand today, companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX are still proving they can handle the risks and requirements of manned space flight, while demonstrating a robust commitment to safety equal to or greater than NASA’s own. In the long term, partnering with private firms might give NASA more freedom to focus on greater projects and less pedestrian activities, while other firms handle the heavy lifting of moving cargo from sea level to orbit.

lIKE ()orShare