Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Potential for commercial involvment in the ESAS

Mike Griffin has finally stated his own thoughts on how he sees the commercial sector fitting into the new space exploration architecture. It would appear that the ESAS contains within it, although not obvious at first glance, the potential to allow private companies to competively supply services to the exploration missions as those services appear on the market and prove themselves reliable and cost effective. To my knowledge, this is the first time since Brant Spoonberg first announced NASA's Innovative Programs initiative that NASA has provided any insight into what kinds of commercial opportunities they are interested in pursuing.

The points outlined in his speech also reinforce my belief that the key to sustainability of human space exploration is infrastructure. He made specific references to the establishment of a fuel depot, perhaps started by NASA (i.e. by donating the first storage tank), but maintained by commercial interests. The presence of such a depot makes the dry launch scenario possible and allows NASA to put more useful (in his words: high-value) payload on the HLV. The fuel depot is a good first step as far as getting the needed infrastructure in place, but it is not in the critical path. For what it's worth, I agree with his reasoning about why it is not, but I do hope that they are able to provide a strong incentive for the private sector to establish one very soon.

Of course, the fuel depot is just one of many support services which could be supplied by the private sector. Crew launch could also be made commercially available if the personal spaceflight industry materializes in a timely manner. From Griffin's remarks, it seems that he wants the private sector to start looking at NASA as a potential customer rather than a competitor. I'll take his comments as an encouraging sign of things to come; however, I have one remaining objection which I will cover in my next post.

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