NASA’s top civil servant
By Amanda Miller|January 2019
Steve Jurczyk commutes to his headquarters job in Washington, D.C., by train, bypassing an inevitably traffic-choked drive. “No matter how much they widen the roads, the traffic expands to fill them up,” according to NASA’s top-ranking civil servant, illustrating why humans need to get more day-to-day traffic off the ground and into the third dimension. He had already packed his parka, when we spoke, for a trip to Kazakhstan to attend the December launch of a Soyuz spacecraft carrying a U.S. astronaut after a prior — and quite a dramatic — botched attempt that somehow left no one injured. Somewhat new to the job, Jurczyk may not get many more chances to make the trip. NASA hopes its emerging Commercial Crew Program will end the United States’ reliance on Russia to take astronauts to the International Space Station while at the same time opening up commercial lines of transportation to low Earth orbit to stimulate the economy across a range of industries there.
Commercial crew concept
The original vision was that NASA would purchase seats but that other commercial entities, both domestic and international, would also purchase seats. And then the cost of further developing and operating those vehicles would be spread across a business base that was more than just NASA. That was the original vision. The other vision was industry investment in development of those vehicles. And we did see some of that.
Stimulating a service
Some of the early-on folks could not raise the money they needed to invest, and others were able to, and that allowed NASA to successfully get through the initial phase, which was the COTS [Commercial Orbital Transportation Services] program, through the funded Space Act agreements. And then once it looked like we had viable providers, then we moved to a standard, fixed-price, Federal Acquisition Regulation, FAR-based contracting approach, which is what we’re doing now, to buy services.
I think initially it would probably be other government agencies. I know United Arab Emirates, UAE, has an agreement with Russia, actually, training to fly some of their astronauts on Soyuz. We don’t know about ISRO, the Indian space agency, which recently expressed a goal to establish a human spaceflight activity in the early 2020s — we don’t know what their plans are yet.
Orbit itself as a destination
Oh yeah, absolutely, [tourist flights will go to orbit and back]. The challenge there will be, there’s only a small percent of the population that can afford that kind of flight. And of course, Blue Origin, too, they have this vision — they’re not involved in Commercial Crew; right now we do some orbital flights with them through the Fly Opportunities program — but they have a vision of hundreds of thousands of people living and working in space. So that could also provide opportunity for commercial passenger services.
Research and development in space
We definitely would like to see commercial capabilities in low Earth orbit for research and development, to demonstrate and advance technologies and capabilities, and to create both commercial activities in space, like this robotic manufacturing assembly-type capability, [and] also R&D and manufacturing in space, where the final use of the product is on Earth. Some of those things can be done robotically or autonomously, but some of those things are going to require crewed capabilities and missions.
Commercial remote sensing has started to move to a more robust commercial enterprise. But there’s a set of things we think we’ll see in research, development, manufacturing, tourism, etc., with some enablers like reduction in the cost of access to space — that’s a real inhibitor, right, routine access to space — for systems and also eventually people. Applications of technologies like automation and robotics and manufacturing. We’re hoping to enable a much more robust set of commercially viable activities. And NASA will be one of the customers. We’re going to continue to need R&D and things in low Earth orbit, but it’ll be a much more diverse set of customers in low Earth orbit — much more activity, which will provide opportunity for not only the commercial providers for systems but also for launching crew where you need people to actually do the R&D or the manufacturing or for tourism.
U.S. Commerce Department
We see Commerce taking several roles, and that is developing a regulatory framework and reducing the regulatory burden on companies, so it’s easier to enable these new capabilities and services. So that’s one thing. The other thing is we want to develop a plan with Commerce and other agencies of how the government should be working with industry most effectively to enable these capabilities — through buying services, through technology development, through collaboration — like we’ve done on Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew. We want to take that and extend it to other capabilities. We want to make sure that what we’re doing with respect to collaborating with industry and advancing their interests is consistent with the policies that they put into place for supporting a commercial space industry. And so we are actively working with them from the Secretary [Wilbur] Ross level and Administrator [Jim] Bridenstine level on down, making sure that what we’re doing is complementary and consistent and we’re kind of rowing in the same direction.
Commercial space traffic
We have been clear. We are not a regulatory agency, and we should not be a regulatory agency. We have two other agencies that can do that, and we’ll continue to collaborate with them just like we collaborate with the FAA on the air traffic management side, we collaborate with FAA on the space side, and we’re beginning to develop that relationship with the Department of Commerce.
The [Trump] administration wants to give the space traffic management to Commerce. The House of Representatives, their legislation says Commerce. The Senate says FAA. There are individual members in Congress who believe FAA should be it, and [the FAA] were already kind of standing that up. In the meantime, we’re working with Commerce to try to move out, given the administration’s direction. But we already have the relationships if, in the end, everybody decides it’s the FAA and not Department of Commerce on the traffic management side, on the commercial side, then we already worked with FAA on Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew. We already have the relationships.