Dawn of a New Era? NASA Gives $50M to Private Space Companies

By Andrew Moseman | February 3, 2010 4:22 pm

earth-horizon-webA few days after the White House released its budget that proposes axing NASA’s Constellation program and providing more support to private space flight, the Obama administration began to follow through on the second part of that equation. NASA has announced that it’s giving $50 million to five companies to support new space vehicles.

That $50 million isn’t from the revised budget, but rather the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (or in more common parlance, the $787 billion federal stimulus package). Nevertheless, NASA chief Charles Bolden said these five companies–Sierra Nevada Corporation, Blue Origin, Boeing, Paragon Space Development Corp., and United Launch Alliance–would play a large part in future plans. “Ladies and gentlemen, these are the faces of the new frontier. The vanguard,” said Bolden. “We will certainly be adding to this group in the near future” [Space.com].

Sierra Nevada received the largest grant: $20 million for the development of their “Dream Chaser,” a seven-person crew vehicle based on the Hl-20 runway landing, heavy lifting body concept (looks similar to the canceled Crew Return Vehicle for the ISS) [Universe Today]. Boeing received $18 million to advance its work on a personnel capsule that could be launced by various different rockets; the company has partnered with Bigelow Aerospace on the project. Blue Origin, the pet project of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos that DISCOVER has covered before, was awarded nearly $4 million to develop the escape system for its module. The others received funds for environmental controls on board their spaceships or for monitoring the health of old rockets that could be reused.

Those totals are small compared to the $3.5 billion NASA has already provided SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation to develop vehicles to reach the International Space Station, as well as the monetary support that could reach private space companies if Congress approves Obama’s budget with its change of direction for NASA. But Bolden acknowledged that this announcement was tied to the Administration’s new plans, and NASA will be working more and more with these companies in the days to come.

Related Content:
80beats: Obama’s NASA Budget: So Long, Moon Missions; Hello, Private Spaceflight
80beats: SpaceX Scores a NASA Contract To Resupply the Space Station
80beats: Jeff Bezos’ Secret Rocket Program To Do Experiments in Space
Bad Astronomy: Give Space a Chance
Bad Astronomy: RUMOR: Obama to Axe Constellation And Ares

Image: flickr / PauloReCanuto

  • Jason Hogan

    I don’t even work in the aerospace industry and I can see the mistake being made here. It isn’t just about jobs (you know, the ones that are being lost…about 10,000).

    It’s about more. This is being done WITHOUT a plan. If this were being done and the government had a laid-out plan then things would be different but the truth is even NASA’s administrator didn’t know about it until the same day we all found out. That means the administration didn’t consult ANYONE before making this decision.

    How can a politician who builds his whole campaign on “saving jobs” effectively kill the livelihood of 10,000 families with the stroke of a pen and not even have the decency to call a press- conference and explain?

    Constellation was about more than “going back to the moon”. It is a very complex plan which has many steps; of which going back to the moon was only step one. The moon was supposed to be a milestone in a larger mission of ultimately putting people on Mars and beyond. Why is this important? Because we have only inhabited a very small portion of the known universe and there are things out there which we know exist, but we haven’t actually seen them. Look at the periodic table of elements…some of those elements only exist in space. If you think we do some cool stuff now, just imagine what we could do with the more exotic stuff we can’t get here on earth!

    The other loss is that of our dreams. I have a nine-year old daughter who loves the space program. She has autographed pictures of some of the current astronauts. Every shuttle (and hopefully rocket) which goes up doesn’t just carry valuable payload and experiments, it carries our dreams. It carries our hopes. It carries the hope that one day our children will live their lives better than ours due to the technological advances derived from the research (most people don’t realize how much NASA has influenced the technology they use every day) and the promise of our ability to persevere and conquer any problem given.

    Oh, and telling your children that one day they can become astronauts…we’ll all have to sacrifice and refrain, because they can only strive to be passengers on a Russian (or soon Chinese) ship now.

    Whether you’re republican, democrat, or independent, this should have been thought out and planned better. The truth is, it wasn’t. The program was cancelled, and that saved a minor drop in the bucket compared to all of the other money spent.

    I’m confused as to the rhetoric about the environment and “energy-efficiency”. NASA releases all technology produced to the general public. What would create more “energy efficient” technologies than a trip to the moon or Mars? These are very treacherous trips with no pit-stops or gas stations on the way. Have you ever heard the saying “Necessity is th mother of invention”? Goals produce ideas. This was the goal.

    So…we saved next to nothing, killed the thing we have consistently dominated the rest of the world at, did away with 10,000 jobs, and robbed our future and children’s’ future of everything that would have come from the technology developed while also eliminating that whole “astronaut” dream.

    Good job. Mission accomplished.

  • KC

    The real problem is the lack of a compelling vision. Getting back to the moon isn’t about collecting more rocks anymore. The moon is basically the training wheel for developing the technology needed to got out further and staying longer in space.

    The moon should be the launching point for the manned exploration to Mars and not from Earth. This would require the development of the entire technology ecosystem based on the moon that would be capable of building and supplying that Mars bound spaceship.

  • Katharine

    Jason, I think what’s happening is that the US is getting the aircraft from private industries while still maintaining its own astronauts.

    This could make training a problem on several different modules, but we’ll see how NASA adapts to that.

    Earth needs to build toward reaching into the solar system.

  • Matt T

    Jason argument #1: This was a bad decision because it wasn’t planned out.
    I seriously doubt that the administration consulted NO ONE. The timeline alone suggests that there was prior planning done: “A few days after the White House released its budget…NASA has announced that it’s giving $50 million to five companies to support new space vehicles.” What…do you think that Obama just pulled some names out of a hat and said “you just won the NASA lottery”? There was obviously some modicum of vetting done to select these 5 companies. Don’t be hyperbolic.

    Jason argument #2: Its bad to kill the constellation program because it employed so many people.
    Well, there will be other jobs created in other locations as a result of the increased funding, probably more due to the fact that you’re dividing the work among more entities. But I don’t think the calculus on job creation vs. job deletion is that important since this argument pops up every time there is a policy change involving jobs, which is another way of saying that this argument doesn’t hold water.

    Jason argument #3: You’re taking away the dream (of NASA, of astronauts, of kids, etc…).
    NASA will still train astronauts! We will just be contracting others to do more of the development of the vehicles to allow astronauts to be astronauts. We will still go to space! The agency isn’t dead…not even close. NASA is great at researching; let the “market” deal with the efficient implementation of that research.

    Jason argument #4: You’re confused with regards to the “efficiency rhetoric”.
    So am I. Maybe once you’re not confused, you can make a coherent argument about it, and then I’ll attempt to counter it.

  • Homeru

    I was never enthusiastic with the prospect of watching another moon landing from my living room. Within five years of having human rated LEO shuttles sending the first crews to the ISS these private contractors will be sending tourists into orbit as a side business. Without the fat contracts to get the hardware worked out we might have to wait another decade to get private investment to cover it. Folks would have to satisfy their personal space dreams with a short suborbital trip on the Virgin Galactic ships (still pretty cool though). There are already prototypes of space hotel modules in orbit (Bigelow Aerospace), with the technology in place to have fully habitable ones available in just a few years. Public enthusiasm for space exploration will blossom again when it is within the financial reach of thousands or tens of thousands of people to personally experience space rather than watching a handful of government selected professionals or ultra-millionares.

    Let NASA use their engineers for robotic probes, telescopes, and science satelites and fund research grants to develop next generation propulsion technologies that could be cost effective enough to send people regularly to the moon and beyond in the future.

  • Jay Fox

    Require possession of GPS technology by anyone not supportive of space technologies to be illegal. Take away their microwave ovens, too.


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