NASA, commercial space industry pledge to learn from each other

AIAA ASCENDx, Houston — Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, was in a meeting with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and representatives of the U.S. Space Force on Wednesday, and returned yesterday to speak at the second day of the conference here with a message: “I told the governor that what we’re trying to do at the NASA Johnson Space Center is business at the speed of industry. But the governor said, ‘No. We need to be doing business at the speed of space.’”

She then ticked off a couple of the innovations that have come as a result of working in partnership with commercial companies:

  • New spacesuit designs for better and safer exploration of the moon’s surface during the Artemis III mission (and for use on the International Space Station) developed with Axiom Space, based here in Houston, and Collins Aerospace of Charlotte, North Carolina.
  • A pressurized moon rover for habitable capability, in a NASA partnership with JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. A final design is due to be sent to an outside commercial contractor sometime this year.

There is more needed. Kathy Lueders, the NASA associate administrator in charge of the Space Operations Mission Directorate, spelled out what she believes NASA needs: “We are just at the beginning of commercializing space. What we really need help with is for you to continue to push us and work with us to make this happen. We have got to keep the momentum going. It’s very, very critical for us.”

She called for even closer collaboration between NASA and the industry. “We have to figure it out together,” she said, referring to the intersection of technical and regulatory challenges. “We need that [collaboration] for us to be able to stand up and say, ‘Yes, we understand that this system will be able to support people.’”

Lueders added that regulators must be able to tell an insurance company, “Yes,” a rocket or spacecraft meets regulations, “and you should be able to then offer appropriate insurance value for that particular system. A lot of this is very nonsexy stuff. But it’s critical and foundational for us to be able to operate in space.”

Carie Mullins, director of analytics at BryceTech, a consulting firm in located in Alexandria, Virginia, predicted that NASA’s partnership with commercial providers at the moon will bring good surprises. “These commercial payloads will be able to provide various services. It’s really kind of a stage where we’re looking at the lunar surface and say, ‘What can we do? What kind of commercial services? Who might our customers be?’” Mullins said. “So we’ll see commercial landers. We’ll see maybe even some samples return [from the moon]. We’ll see some very kind of novel approaches. Maybe it’s taking mementos to the moon or providing data storage capacity on the lunar surface.”

As for the schedules of the upcoming human missions, Artemis III, NASA’s planned return of astronauts to the moon, is on track for 2025, according to slides shown here by NASA’s Amit Kshatriya; Axiom Space completed its preliminary design review for its private space station; and the lunar Gateway station is moving forward as well, with the first two build elements ready for launch on a future SpaceX Falcon Heavy, said NASA’s Emma Lehnhardt, manager of the program’s Planning and Control Office at NASA Johnson.

In a brief interview, Charles Stegemoeller, the director of NASA business development and capture management for Leidos, the Reston, Virginia-based science and technology firm, summed up ASCENDx like this: “The point of this conference, from my perspective, is that we’re in a whole different business case than we have ever been in Apollo or the space shuttle or the space station [eras]. What do we have to know about ourselves to make that possible? NASA is living up to a kind of ‘go faster, go cheaper’ idea by opening up a commercial marketplace, instead of NASA as the monolithic solution agent.”

NASA, commercial space industry pledge to learn from each other