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CONVERSATIONS IN SCIENCE

NASA encouraging spaceflight to go commercial

The Commercial Crew Program is responsible for helping companies develop vehicles that can ferry astronauts, and maybe civilians, to space. Could this lead to a 'spaceline' industry, a la the airlines?

June 23, 2012|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times
  • NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, left, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk examine the SpaceX Dragon at the company's plant in McGregor, Texas.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, left, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk examine… (Duane A. Laverty, Associated…)

NASA led the way for Americans in space, but now the U.S. space agency is actively encouraging companies to take over primary responsibility for getting in and out of Earth's orbit. Last month, a capsule built and operated by SpaceX completed a nine-day cargo-hauling mission to the International Space Station, becoming the first private-sector spacecraft to make such a journey.

But it won't be the last. Ed Mango, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, is charged with helping companies develop vehicles that could ferry astronauts — and eventually, perhaps, civilians — on routine trips to space. Mango visited The Times to discuss his efforts and how they could lead to a "spaceline" industry that resembles today's airlines.

What's the goal of the Commercial Crew Program?

We still have Americans in space. But we don't have a way to get there. So the motivation for this small team I have is that we are the next organization within NASA that's going to get American systems back into low Earth orbit.

Why is NASA relying on private companies instead of operating the flights itself?

It fits with what has happened in the past. Look at how the airlines got started: Air Mail was run by the government, totally. Then eventually, the government didn't want to be the ones to own airplanes, own airfields, employ the pilots — all that kind of stuff. So they said, "We're going to contract this out."

That became cargo capability. And as time went on, companies said, "We can transport people, not just cargo." Thus, the birth of the airlines.

NASA has partnered with seven companies and funded four of them. Why so many?

There's more than one way to get to low Earth orbit. All seven companies have very different approaches.

We had four different capsule designs that can get to low Earth orbit. They all could work, ultimately. I think there are some that could work sooner, some that can work safer, and some that will work with less expense.

The Dragon capsule made by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne just became the first commercial spacecraft to reach the International Space Station. Does SpaceX have a leg up on the competition?

If they're flying cargo today, they already have a system that works. Modifying a system that works is a lot better than starting any new system, so that becomes an advantage for them.

Boeing has their design, which is also a capsule-type design, and is trying to work out the same kind of issues that Dragon has. The only difference is that they haven't flown their stuff yet. But Boeing has 50 years of human spaceflight already. They have all the people who did Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle. They have all the trips and falls that have been made over those 50 years.

What are some other designs?

Sierra Nevada Corp. has what's called Dreamchaser. It's a wing vehicle — some people look at it as a mini-shuttle. It is very small: It carries the same number of people but it doesn't carry any real cargo. The advantage is they land on a runway. And a wing vehicle can land a lot of different places, so that provides a lot more safety.

Every company is different in what they're bringing to the table, which is really good for the government.

Looking ahead, can you envision a time when private spaceline companies would set up their own stations in orbit?

I don't know; I'm not a futurist. But I would predict that we would have more than just a government facility in orbit.

And what will NASA be focusing on instead?

A lot of the research is about how to go beyond low Earth orbit. What do you have to do in order to live out in space for six months, to live out in space for even longer? How do you rehabilitate the body when it wants to come back to Earth? If you don't have enough of that research done when they're ready to go — which won't be for a while yet — then you're putting the crew at bigger risk.

amina.khan@latimes.com

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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