NASA will soon solicit offers from firms interested in delivering cargo and crew to the international space station (ISS), but NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said he wants to buy services, not dole out development contracts to newcomers who were shut out of the competition to build the space shuttle's replacement.
The United States plans to retire its three remaining space shuttle orbiters no later than 2010 and replace them with a new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) to transport astronauts to the international space station and the Moon. NASA also wants to be able to use an unmanned version of the CEV to carry cargo to the space station.
Griffin said he also would like to see a robust commercial space transportation industry take root and thrive, and said the best way for NASA to help is to "to utilize the market that is offered by the international space station's requirement to supply crew and cargo as the years unfold."
Speaking here June 21 at a breakfast sponsored by the Space Transportation Association, Griffin said he intends to makes sure the U.S. government has its own systems for getting people and cargo to and from space, but that he also is prepared -- if Congress goes along -- to buy those same services commercially whenever possible.
For the next few years, Griffin said, NASA will continue to rely on the space shuttle to finish assembling the international space station and replenish it from time to time with fresh supplies.
Griffin said "there must be a government-derived capability to service the space station, even after the shuttle is retired," explaining that "we cannot be hostage to an individual provider that can stop or go out of business."
But he also said that just because NASA needs its own system for transporting astronauts and cargo does not mean it would not prefer to buy those services from the private sector.
"What I would most like to do is to be able to buy those services from industry," he said.
Griffin promised that NASA would give priority to non-government services should they become available, although he cautioned that deliberately "under utilizing" a NASA-owned and -operated system could encounter resistance from lawmakers intent on protecting government jobs.
"The pledge that I must make -- because I want to make it -- is that the government will not provide the requested or required service if there is a commercial provider who can do it," Griffin said. "Now for that I will need the cooperation of the Congress . . . because there is an opportunity cost."
Griffin said conventional commercial standards, such as those that govern the commercial satellite industry, will be adopted to encourage industry-wide competition for NASA's business and that all companies will be encouraged to compete for that business, not just the newcomers. "Competition is competition," he said. "Everyone gets to play."
While NASA, as the buyer, would have to provide "progress payment money" tied to certain milestones, Griffin said, the seller would not see a profit before the service has been delivered.
"We need arrangements like that as we begin to develop the ISS crew and cargo procurement," he said.
Another difference between a traditional government contract and the deals Griffin hopes to make is that they would emphasize "performance rather than process." While NASA would insist on "certain standards," Griffin said "It's not up to me as the procurer of that service to determine how the engineers working for you, the provider, provide that service."
One of the standards a would-be service provider would have to meet before it could sell astronaut transport services to NASA would be the agency's human-rating requirements.
"Human-rating requirements must be respected," he said. "They don't have to be respected to every 'i' dotted and every 't' crossed -- and we are interested in push back on what is value added and what is not value added -- but it's more that the bulk that must be accepted."
Despite the stiff conditions Griffin outlined for buying crew and cargo services from the private sector, several space entrepreneurs said they were encouraged by Griffin's remarks.
Charles Miller, president of Constellation Services International, said he was "enthusiastically looking forward" to NASA's crew and cargo solicitation. Constellation Services Internationals, Woodland Hills, Calif., is developing what it calls the LEO (low Earth orbit) Express standardized cargo container, which could launch atop virtually any rocket, as an affordable, near-term solution to NASA's space station re-supply needs.
Elon Musk, president of Space Exploration Technologies, said he was "definitely encouraged" by Griffin's remarks. "This is a market SpaceX has been interested in for a long time," Musk said. The El Segundo, Calif.-based company is using internal funds to build the Falcon 1 rocket, which is due to launch a small Pentagon satellite this summer.
David Gump, president of Reston, Va.-based Transformational Space Corp., a company that has been using several million dollars in NASA study money to refine a concept for an air-launched crewed capsule it says can be built for around $500 million, called the approach outlined by Griffin "eminently reasonable and a great path forward."
Gump also said he thinks commercial crew and cargo services can co-exist with a government-owned and -operated CEV. "If his contracts to the newer companies come through we will get into operations at such a dramatically lower cost of service that NASA will certainly buy from us," Gump said, but "rather than putting CEV out of business by utilizing the non-traditionals NASA would be able to shift the CEV back to its original intended role, which is Moon-Mars."
Colin Clark contributed to this article.