NASA teams with Air Force to step up commercial space pace

NASA partners with US Air Force to develop commercial space roadmap

RLV in action
As it looks to significantly reshape its future, NASA today said it would partner with the US Air Force Research Laboratory to develop a technology roadmap for use of reusable commercial spaceships.

The study of reusable launch vehicle, or RLVs will focus on identifying technologies and assessing their potential use to accelerate the development of commercial reusable launch vehicles that have improved reliability, availability, launch turn-time, robustness and significantly lower costs than current launch systems, NASA stated.  The study results will provide roadmaps with recommended government technology tasks and milestones for different vehicle categories. 

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NASA and the Air Force will begin the study by soliciting feedback from the emerging commercial space industry regarding emerging or existing technologies that would most benefit their existing and near-term space vehicle systems. 

That list could include any number of commercial space firms from Xcor and Scaled Composites to Orbital and SpaceX. 

According to NASA it will look at four categories of space vehicles to develop its roadmap:

1.Reusable, sub-orbital vehicles

2.Expendable and partially reusable, orbital vehicles

3.Reusable, two-stage orbital vehicles

4.Advanced vehicle concepts, such as single stage to orbit, air-breathing systems, in-flight refueling, and tethered upper stage 

Within those vehicles, NASA and the Air Force will evaluate all manner of flight systems from space entry, descent and recovery systems to avionics, communications and flight control. 

"Low-cost and reliable access to space will deliver significant benefits to all NASA's existing missions, from science to human exploration to aeronautics, as well as to our nation's security and to national economic growth," said Doug Comstock, director of NASA's Innovative Partnerships Program at NASA Headquarters in a release. 

NASA recently said it would offer $50 million in stimulus money to further develop private commercial spacecraft. NASA said its Commercial Crew and Cargo Program looks to develop and demonstrate safe, reliable, and cost-effective capabilities to transport cargo and eventually crew to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.

The new program, known as CCDev, represents a milestone in the development of an orbital commercial human spaceflight sector, NASA stated. By maturing "the design and development of commercial crew spaceflight concepts and associated enabling technologies and capabilities," the program will allow several companies to move a few steps forward towards the ultimate goal of full demonstration of commercial human spaceflight to orbit, NASA said. 

CCDev will go hand-in-hand with NASA's existing $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) which is supporting the private development of commercial cargo transportation from companies such as SpaceX and Orbital. 

The program further develops the strategy that NASA's low-earth orbit  work will soon be left to private hands. The agency could then focus on the moon and beyond, barring budget disasters. 

Of course that's a big maybe as the space agency is under pressure to better define its future perhaps under a much smaller budget. For example, the Government Accountability Office recently said NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case--including firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge-based acquisition strategy, a realistic cost estimate, and sufficient funding and time--needed to justify moving the Constellation program, which includes the two main spaceflight components, the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, forward into the implementation phase, the GAO stated. 

There are other issues too. According to the Space Review: Some people are getting a little impatient with the pace of commercial space development. The Associated Press reported recently about Alan Walton, a "daredevil" venture capitalist who plunked down $200,000 nearly five years ago to be one of Virgin Galactic's "Founders", or first 100 customers. Now, he says, he plans to ask the company for his money back if there's no "fixed launch date" by next April, when he turns 74. 

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